Tag Archives: Exploration

How We Got to Orbit

Getting to space is not a difficult task, but staying in space is an entirely different challenge. At the altitude of the International Space Station — 250 miles — a spacecraft must have a horizontal velocity of about 5 miles per second. That’s roughly 17,000 mph. As the mass of the object or vehicle being delivered to space increases, the necessary power of the rocket also increases.

orbitImage Credit: NASA/STS-132 Crew

In October 1957, the USSR launched and successfully orbited the artificial satellite Sputnik 1. A month later, a second Sputnik satellite was launched. These events triggered the Space Race between the Russians and the United States to become the first country to put a human into space.

orbit rocketThe rockets required to achieve this feat would be huge marvels of engineering. Instead of going straight up, they would require building horizontal speed almost immediately after launch. This is done by a “gravity turn” maneuver while the ascending rocket is still in the atmosphere. Traveling more at a diagonal angle, the rocket would continue to climb towards space while also beginning to get to the necessary speeds for orbit. Once in space, it would continue to build speed until it was going so fast that every time it fell back towards the Earth, it would miss.

The USSR won this race in April 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became not only the first human to orbit the Earth, but also the first to reach outer space. Less than a month later, the US launched Alan Shepard on a sub-orbital flight, but the US didn’t achieve orbit until February 1962 when John Glenn piloted the Friendship 7 for three full orbits around the Earth.

But this was only the beginning. Even before the United States had made it to orbit, President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress on May 25, 1961, declaring NASA’s next mission: getting humankind to the moon.

Orbit Kennedy
Image Credit: NASA

Written by Scott Yarbrough


Believe it or not, supernovas have been known to humans for thousands of years. That’s not to say that ancient civilizations knew exactly what was happening when they saw them, but they were witnesses to some of the most powerful events in our universe. When certain stars reach the end of their lifetime, they explode in a spectacular way. These stars are most commonly very large, anywhere from a few times as massive as our sun to a few hundred times as large. These supernovas emit an incredible amount of light, the brightest of which can be billions of times more luminous than our sun.Supernovas

However, these explosions occur fairly rarely. Scientists believe that only a handful happen in the Milky Way every thousand years. But when they do, they are bright enough to be seen from Earth. In the year 1054, Chinese astronomers observed a new star near the constellation of Taurus. It quickly grew, until it appeared even brighter than the planets in our solar system. This visitor star lasted for about two years, eventually dimming until it could no longer be seen.

Supernovas 1In the 1700s, astronomer John Bevis discovered the Crab Nebula in the Taurus constellation, and it was later recorded by Charles Messier as the first object in his 110-object catalogue. Two hundred years later in 1928, another astronomer named Edwin Hubble connected the records of the Chinese astronomers and the object known as the Crab Nebula to be the same thing, separated by almost a thousand years. His theory was that the nebula was the remnants of a supernova, which was the source of the visitor star.

This turned out to be correct, and later it was determined that at the center of the nebula was a pulsar – a very quickly spinning neutron star left over by the explosion. This revelation led to the discovery of dozens of other supernova remnants. Over the past few decades, research into supernovas has greatly expanded our knowledge of astronomy and stellar evolution. We haven’t seen a supernova in our galaxy for a long time, and we’re due one in the near future. Astronomers have identified several stellar candidates that may explode sometime soon – and when one of them does, we’ll get to experience another visitor star for the first time in hundreds of years.

Written by Scott Yarbrough

Space Exploration with the Rover

We are extremely lucky to have a rare piece of equipment on display here at AstroCamp. On loan from JPL, we have the model of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers! As a part of our Mars exploration class, “Expedition Valles Marineris”, the model is used to show our campers a full scale example of what NASA and other space agencies have sent to explore our solar system.

Spirit and Opportunity are just two of 14 artificial objects on Mars, landing on the red planet in January 2004. NASA last communicated with Spirit on March 22, 2010, but Opportunity is still going strong!


They were sent to explore two different sites on opposite sides of Mars and their purpose was to collect rocks and soil samples looking for clues of past water activity. A few characteristics built into them to enable this exploration are: Solar panels, the PanCam, a visible light spectrometer, an x-ray spectrometer, rock abrasion tool, and microscope, to name a few. A fun characteristic that they share is that they have tire markings which spell out “NASA” in morse code as they roll through the red dust.

rover 1

However, did you know that rovers are not the only types of explorers that we have sent or will send to space? There are also:

  • Astronauts and cosmonauts
  • Drones
  • The Gecko Gripper
  • Satellites
  • Landers

But, with the help from our future scientists and engineers, like those campers who attend AstroCamp, there is no telling what the future can hold! So what impact do you think you could create for the future of space?

Written by: Mimi Garai

Three Things You Should Know About Telescopes

1) They Come in Three Flavors


Image credit: Dale Mahalko.

All telescopes fall into one of three categories: refracting, reflecting, or combination. Most modern telescopes favor the reflector method for practical reasons. It’s easier to create and transport a large, precise parabolic mirror than a lens of equal usefulness. Mirrors also eliminate the problem of chromatic aberration (shown above; notice the discolored edges on the small boxes and the arm of the glasses). Chromatic aberration is an optical distortion resulting from light of different wavelengths emerging from a glass lens at varying angles.

2) Magnification Isn’t the Point


Image credit: NASA/JPL.

At least, it’s not the only one. If a telescope zoomed in on the image your eye records of, say, Jupiter, you’d see a large, fuzzy blob. Light collection in the human eye is limited by aperture size and perceptual frame rate. Poor light-capturing ability translates to blurry views of distant, seemingly tiny objects. Magnification is nice, so the small eyepiece lens on a telescope does enlarge the final image, but the scope’s large primary lens or mirror serves a different purpose: gathering lots and lots of photons. The image above shows Neptune as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope, whose primary mirror measures eight feet in diameter!

3) You Can Build A Simple Model Out of Stuff You (Probably) Already Have

The quality will be far from professional, but this DIY project is a fun, easy way to explore the concepts at work in a reflecting telescope. Set up a curved shaving/cosmetic mirror opposite the light source you want to observe (try a flashlight, or the moon if you’re feeling crafty…NEVER THE SUN). This is your primary mirror. Place a flat mirror in between the primary mirror and light source, facing the primary mirror– that’s your secondary mirror. Position yourself behind the primary mirror so you can see its reflection in the secondary. Play with each mirror’s angle and distance to resolve your target image. How does it turn out? What are the limitations of the system?

Take this project further by experimenting with mirror & lens combinations (try a magnifying glass lens), measuring mirror and lens focal lengths, and/or mounting your optical components along a cardboard tube or other support structure. Again, do not use these methods to image the sun. Irreversible injury and/or fire may result.

For a higher-quality alternative, try the Galileoscope, a user-friendly refracting telescope designed for educators and curious people. It’s easy to assemble without tools or glue. Watch below as our Galileoscope goes from a pile of parts to a working instrument (also not safe for sun-gazing).


Written By: Caela Barry

DIY Fireproof Cash

smallmoneyburnWe soaked this $5 bill in flammable rubbing alcohol and then lit it on fire. So how did it survive? Does it have something to do with the bill itself?

This demonstration is impressive with money, but we haven’t been able to find an example of it using other materials. Many people have asked us what would happen to regular paper in the same situation. This opened up the chance for us to do some real science! We repeated our experiment, replacing the dollar bill with standard white paper and a brown paper napkin. Neither of these caught fire either.

The key to this trick is the part that stayed the same in all three experiments: a solution of rubbing alcohol and water. Water has a high specific heat, so changing its temperature takes a lot of energy, as we’ve seen before. Unlike water, rubbing alcohol is very flammable. It easily burns away until most if it is gone, leaving behind a mixture consisting primarily of water.  

By lighting pools of alcohol on our fireproof table tops, we measured the temperature of the water left behind after burning off as much of the alcohol as we could. Here are the results:


smallpaperDespite being literally covered in fire for thirty seconds, the water temperature only climbed by 11.8 degrees Fahrenheit! The water in the rubbing alcohol mixture is protecting the money with its high specific heat, preventing the paper in all of the above examples from getting hot enough to burn. As such, when performing this experiment, it’s very important that we completely soak the money (or other experiment subject). If any surface is exposed, it will catch on fire! After the flame has gone out, the paper doesn’t even feel warm to the touch.

Only try this at home with adult permission and a fire extinguisher!

Written by: Scott Alton


Orion Test Flight

NASA’s Orion Spacecraft is about the engage in its very first unmanned test flight.  A successful test flight for Orion is a big deal for the future of human space exploration.  That’s why we’re paying very close attention to this event.  Here’s what you can expect to happen on Thursday, December 4th.

The scheduled launch time is 7:05 A.M. Eastern Time from Cape Canaveral Florida.  If weather can be a factor to launch fortunately there is a window of 2 hours and 39 minutes to still get the launch off or else it will be postponed to another day.  In the future, Orion will be launched by a different rocket system, but for this test flight it will be riding on a Delta IV Heavy Rocket.  After launch the whole test flight will take 4.5 hours as the spacecraft makes two orbits around the Earth before coming back to ground.

There are several systems that need to be tested during this launch.  First test is the separation or jettison of the protective coverings that keep Orion safe from the atmosphere during launch.  Once in space, these casings are no longer necessary and removing them will lighten the spacecraft.  After an initial orbit, the Upper Stage Rockets will boost the spacecraft into a very high orbit of about 3,600 miles.  The last stage of testing will be the reentry capsule.  NASA needs to see if the capsule can handle the intense temperatures and pressures that the spacecraft will experience on the return to Earth.  The parachutes will also need to deploy successfully to ensure a nice soft landing.  Let’s hope for the best!

If you are not fortunate enough to live close enough to Cape Canaveral to watch the liftoff in person you can watch coverage of the event on NASA TV or http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html# online.

For a look at the detailed sequence of events during the test flight, check out this article:  http://space.io9.com/heres-what-to-expect-during-the-first-orion-test-flight-1654607626/+AnnaleeNewitz

Soundtrack Info: “Running Fanfare” by Kevin MacLeod under the Creative Commons Attribution license. It can be found here: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kevin_MacLeod/Classical_Sampler/Running_Fanfare


Liquid Nitrogen Pool Exploration


At AstroCamp, we love exploring and testing theories. So what do we do when we have excess liquid nitrogen from our summer camp program that will evaporate before we can use it again?  Why we do some experiments of course!  Our favorite recent experiment was dumping the left over liquid nitrogen into the pool.  We thought we were going to get a lot of condensation from the water vapor coming into contact with the cold liquid nitrogen.  What we forgot to take into account was the Leidenfrost Effect.  The Leidenfrost Effect occurs when a liquid comes into contact with a surface much hotter than it.  Because of the drastic change in temperature, the liquid that comes into contact with the surface boils near instantly.  But the boiled gas creates a buffer for the rest of the liquid and keeps it from evaporating for a while longer. In the pool, this allows the liquid nitrogen to spread across the surface of the water, expanding the fog until it nearly covers the pool entirely.  Stay tuned for future fun things to do with liquid nitrogen exploration!


We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. AstroCamp is a hands-on physical science program with an emphasis on astronomy and space exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and astronomical happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree in Physics or Astronomy, however it is not uncommon for them to have a Masters Degree or PhD. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science, space and astronomy information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit www.astrocampschool.org for additional information. Happy Reading!