Tag Archives: NASA

What is Ferrofluid?

Back in the early 1960s, a fledgling NASA was presented with lots of new problems. Going to space was unlike anything humans had ever done, and engineers and scientists were constantly searching for answers to issues they had never even considered before.

ferrofluid 2 2One of these problems was dealing with the properties of a liquid in low-gravity environments. On Earth, a liquid will stay at the bottom of its containers as gravity pulls it down. But without gravity, the liquid will float all around its container, forming spheres of liquid.

Since the rockets used by NASA relied on liquid fuel, there was a problem getting the fuel pumped to the engines once the spacecraft was in orbit. Several ideas were tried, and though NASA eventually settled on small solid rockets to settle the liquid fuel near the intake, one of the ideas proposed by a scientist named Steve Papell was a ferrofluid fuel.

A ferrofluid is any liquid with metallic metal suspended in it. The metal has a special material coating to prevent the small pieces from attracting or repelling each other, but when the solution is exposed to an exterior magnetic field, the ferrofluid is attracted to the magnet. It also increases in density and becomes somewhat rigid.

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When Steve Papell suggested using a magnetic fuel, his idea would be to control the flow of the fuel by using magnets. Instead of letting the

liquid blob in the center of the tank, it could now be held towards the fuel intake and make the system more efficient. Though it was a good idea, NASA found other, better solutions for the rocket issue.

That didn’t mean the end of ferrofluids, however. Another scientist named R.E.Rosensweig improved upon the design and developed a new branch of fluid dynamics known as ferrohydrodynamics.

Since then, ferrofluids have been used in many devices — the most common of which is in electronic devices such as hard disks, using it to form liquid seal that will be held in place by magnets. This seal prevents dust and other materials from entering the hard drive.

Despite its practical uses, ferrofluid is just cool to look at. If you ever have the chance, grab a magnet and play around with it!

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.

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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

Looking Back At Cassini

NASA’s Cassini orbiter will be ending its mission with a grand finale dive into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15, but it’s accomplished so much in its nearly 20 years of operation.

When it was first launched on October 15, 1997, it was the first mission to be an in-depth study of Saturn and its moons. As a part of that mission, it discovered and studied the hexagonal hurricanes at Saturn’s poles, seen above. It also determined that Saturn’s rings were a dynamic feature instead of just a static disc of gas and dust and imaged the first large structures within the rings themselves. Of the large structures it imaged, it actually discovered six moons: Methone, Polydeuces, Daphnis, Anthe, Aegaenon, and S/2009 S 1; and may have discovered a seventh. However, it increased our understanding of several of Saturn’s moons we had already discovered.


Image credit: Space Engine

Saturn’s moon Iapetus’ two-tone surface had been a mystery to astronomers for some time, but we now know the answer to this problem thanks to Cassini. As Iapetus spins, ice on its surface sublimates (or transitions directly from solid to gas) on the dark side and deposits on the light side.

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Image credit: NASA, ESA

It had been known for some time that Saturn’s moon Enceladus was covered in ice, but Cassini made a startling discovery: geysers. Jets of water and ice shooting out from the surface of Enceladus, actually forming a layer in the rings of Saturn. This discovery may not seem important at first, but those geysers suggest liquid water beneath that icy crust, and liquid water is the key to our search for life outside this planet.

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Image credit: NASA, ESA

Possibly the biggest accomplishment of the Cassini mission was actually done by the attached probe: Huygens. The Huygens probe became the first to land on a moon in the outer Solar System when it landed on Saturn’s biggest moon: Titan. Titan’s atmosphere and size had led astronomers to believe there to be lakes of hydrocarbons, organic molecules associated with life, dotting its surface. However, Huygens’ landing showed that while there are features like riverbeds, they have since dried up and the hydrocarbon lakes are limited to Titan’s poles.

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Image credit: Space Engine

For it’s final leg of the mission, Cassini will dive into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15, will burn up, and along the way it will be giving us even more information. Cassini will be measuring Saturn’s atmospheric composition and will be mapping its gravitational and magnetic fields.

From all of us at AstroCamp, thank you Cassini!cassini 5

Image credit: NASA, ESA


The Speed of Fire

How fast is fire? We sent a burst of flame through a fluorescent light tube to explore the propagation of an alcohol-burning reaction along an enclosed path. In our experiment, the frontier of flame sped along at over six feet per second. Fire behaves very differently in other environments. In space, combustion becomes almost unrecognizable.


Gif: SpaceFire1

Flames speed along the tube, rebounding at each end.

Fire heats the air around it, causing molecules to speed up and spread out. On Earth, warm air rises as the cooler, thicker surrounding atmosphere sinks towards the base of the flames. This current delivers fresh oxygen to the base of the fire, and it continues burning for as long as the fuel supply lasts. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the cold air down, so flames burn spherically. Without the pull of a convection current, oxygen isn’t carried to the source of the reaction; instead, it diffuses into the fire. Random motion of air molecules isn’t a very efficient way to bring oxygen and fuel together, so flames in microgravity burn out much more quickly than we’re used to seeing here on Earth.


In microgravity, flames are shaped like spheres instead of teardrops. This color image is from the FLEX (Flame Extinguishment) experiment on the ISS. Image credit: NASA/GRC

Fire is a serious hazard on a spacecraft because there’s nowhere to escape to. Reliable fire-extinguishing technology is a vital part of safe, sustainable space travel. Strategies that work well on Earth, however, don’t always do the trick hundreds or thousands of miles above its surface– new tactics are required. In the last several years, combustion experiments on the ISS have begun to reveal the mysterious and fascinating behavior of fire in microgravity.

A few years ago, scientists studying space combustion noticed something phenomenal going on after their experimental flames died out: the fuel kept burning. No visible light was emitted, and the reaction was much cooler — around 700 degrees Fahrenheit instead of the usual 2500 or so — but the fuel burned away nonetheless. This behavior isn’t usually observed on Earth, but if we can find a way to replicate it consistently, it could be used for applications such as low-emission auto engines.


A droplet of heptane fuel burns in microgravity in this false-color time-lapse image. The droplet appears yellow and becomes smaller as it burns. Green areas are initial soot structures. Image credit: NASA

Microgravity research is already yielding exciting knowledge about the nature of fire outside of Earth’s influence, and there’s much more to come. Dr. Forman Williams, UC San Diego, is one of the investigators working on the FLEX-2 experiment to demystify space combustion. In 2013, he summed up the state of the field: “when it comes to fire, we’re just getting started.”

Happy Anniversary, Humans in Space!

November 2, 2000. It was a dark night on our planet. More than 200 miles above Earth’s surface, a Soyuz rocket began a slow dance in the bigger darkness of space. The docking sequence took three hours and forty minutes. At its end, the International Space Station welcomed the first of hundreds of human residents. The outpost has been inhabited ever since.


Expedition One crew members pose after water survival training. From left: Flight Engineer and Russian Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev; International Space Station Commander and U.S. Astronaut Bill Shepherd; Soyuz Commander and Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko. Credit: NASA

Bill Shepherd, Yuri Gidzenko, and Sergei Krikalev passed 4 busy months on the ISS. First, they moved in. Critical life support systems waited to be set up. Supplies needed unpacking. After waking up the station and settling themselves, the astronauts hosted visiting crews, received unmanned spacecraft, made improvements to the station, and conducted research. Their work set the precedent for the next decade and a half of sustained experimentation in low Earth orbit.


Shepherd rehearses an extravehicular activity (EVA) mission in Russia’s Hydrolab training facility. Scuba divers stand by to assist. Aquatic neutral buoyancy practice is a key component of astronaut training around the world. Credit: NASA

Since Expedition One, over two hundred astronauts and scientists have spent time on the ISS. Cool-burning flames have been studied and extinguished in microgravity. Lettuce has flourished in space. Students have peered through digital windows from their classrooms into our planet’s most distant human-operated research lab.

The station has built a foundation of knowledge about space travel’s effects on the human body. That knowledge is expanding even further thanks to identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. Scott recently broke the record for most time spent in space, just over halfway through his year of orbital residence. Mark holds down the fort on the ground. The Twins Study includes ten independent investigations of everything from physiology to behavioral health to space-induced genetic changes.


Veggie, the plant growth system used on the ISS, basks in energy-efficient LED light. Credit: NASA/Orbital Technologies

These are just a few of the many imaginative, futuristic ISS experiments bringing home big benefits. Technology driven by space-based farming research keeps produce fresh in supermarkets worldwide and aids food preservation in developing countries. Climate scientists use the unique perspective of low Earth orbit to better predict and respond to natural disasters. The Twins Study deepens our understanding of ourselves as a species. Space poses unique problems that stretch the margins of human creativity and cleverness. Rising to these challenges not only brings us closer to interplanetary travel, it also motivates life-changing science right here on Earth.

#WhySpaceMatters: The Next Martian

Space simulations are a big part of the AstroCamp experience, and they’re more relevant now than ever. #whyspacematters

“Exploration enables science and science enables exploration.” This is one of the seven pioneering principles of NASA’s game plan for Martian exploration, released to the public last week. The technology required for interplanetary colonization is in the works– and entering the mainstream. Thanks to collaboration between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the production team behind The Martian, everyday people are enjoying unprecedented exposure to honest rocket science. Charles Elachi, director of JPL, describes the film as a “reasonable representation” of what’s to come, and with good cause.

Ion propulsion is already a reality. The Deep Space Network has maintained communications with spaceships far more distant than Mars for decades. Precision landing technology capable of planting a MAV-like spacecraft in a habitable location years ahead of its human crew is on the way, as is an autonomous system for synthesizing rocket fuel from local ingredients. SpaceX and NASA are independently building long-distance spacecraft; both have passed recent key flight tests and continue to inch closer to readiness.


Ion engines like the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT), shown here, made history by propelling the Dawn mission to dwarf planets Vesta and Ceres.

The hardware and software are developing swimmingly, but it’s more than that. Humanity is gearing up to step outward.

Phase one: spacefaring Earth does its homework. Astronaut scientists explore what happens to the human body when it goes without gravity for many months at a time. They grow lettuce outside our planet’s atmosphere, experiment with advanced fire safety, and test the long-term life support systems that will eventually shepherd our species far from home. This phase has been under way for years. So far, it’s a monumental success.

Phase two: the proving ground. Current space activity takes place in low Earth orbit (LEO). Mars is several months’ journey away. Before committing a crewed ship to such an odyssey, NASA plans to train and troubleshoot in a middle-ground zone– the space around the moon. This region will host early versions of deep-space habitats and other interplanetary technology.

The proving ground phase also features an unmanned mission to capture a small asteroid and put it into lunar orbit, where it will be explored and analyzed by tethered humans as extravehicular activity practice. That’s right… the moon will have a mini-me!

Finally, phase three: Earth independence. It’s a true pioneering endeavor, one that has galvanized some of the brightest problem-solving minds of recent generations. Human footprints on Mars may be a busy few decades away, but the steps between here and there are clear and surmountable.


Campers practice interplanetary exploration in the Mars: Valles Marineris simulation. Valles Marineris, the largest known canyon in the solar system, would stretch from Los Angeles to NYC on Earth.  

In recent years, an unofficial JPL slogan has emerged. It characterizes the can-do approach, hard work, and imagination that have defined the Mars exploration program so far: dare mighty things. It’s inspirational because, as a space-exploring species, we keep living up to it.

NASA’s road map to Mars falls right in line with this operating philosophy. Read the full report here: NASA Mars Road Map

Meet New Horizons: 7 Space Experiments

January 19, 2006. A piano-sized robot blasts upwards from Earth on a massive rocket and escapes the gravity of our home planet, bound for distant adventures. For a small community of scientists, launch day kicks off the long closing chapter of a story years in the making. To most of the world, it’s the beginning of the New Horizons saga. Nearly a decade of spaceflight later, the brave little probe has earned name recognition in households around the world. Its iconic images and data are the product of its payload. On board, seven cleverly designed experiments work together to gather new science and send it home.

Meet the mechanical and digital brains of New Horizons: Ralph, Alice, REX, LORRI, SWAP, PEPSSI, and the Student Dust Counter (SDC for short, designed and built by actual undergrads)!

Let’s start with their jobs. Together, the seven instruments tackle three primary goals:

  1. Study Pluto and Charon’s geology and morphology,
  2. Make maps of these two worlds, and
  3. Study Pluto’s atmosphere– particularly, how it’s escaping the dwarf planet.

That’s right, Pluto’s atmosphere is escaping! It’s blowing away in the solar wind, and at an astounding rate. It turns out that the dwarf planet and its dynamic atmosphere look almost like a giant comet.


Source: http://pluto.jhuapl.edu/News-Center/News-Article.php?page=20150717-2

This phenomenon is Alice, SWAP, and PEPSSI’s territory. (REX also studies atmospheric science, but is busy figuring out what’s happening down low, near the surface.) Alice, a spectrometer, is in charge of detecting UV rays and figuring out how much of which gases are present in Pluto’s upper atmosphere. SWAP specializes in measuring the solar wind that’s blasting the dwarf planet’s “air” out into space. SWAP’s data, combined with PEPSSI’s analysis of the escaping atmosphere, define the size and shape of the lopsided nitrogen cloud around Pluto, shown as a blue shell in the image above.

Intriguing as the case of the runaway atmosphere may be, it’s not, of course, the biggest thing to come out of the Pluto flyby (which, by the way, occurred at 30,000 mph, over 17 times faster than the average bullet). New Horizons has filled a significant gap in the common consciousness by taking our best image of the former ninth planet from a tantalizing but blurry hint to a gorgeous, high-res map…one with a prominent familiar feature, no less! 

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Sources: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/07/150714-pluto-flyby-new-horizons-space-planets/#, http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/image/1507/Pluto04_NewHorizons_1042.jpg

The exquisitely detailed world on the right is brought to you by LORRI. This telescopic camera gives us such a nice view of Pluto that we can see features as small as 100m across on its surface. LORRI’s partner in science, a spectrometer named Ralph, reads visible and invisible light emitted by Pluto and Charon. The readings tell scientists on Earth about the composition and climate of these distant worlds. We now know, for instance, that much of Pluto is wrapped in a shell of frozen methane and nitrogen!

Each of these experiments is making invaluable contributions to a new foundation of knowledge about the former ninth planet and its cosmic neighborhood. There’s something special, however, about the last instrument aboard New Horizons. It’s been designed and built by students! Young scientists are taking part in the exploration of space– and they’re returning important results.

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Assembly of the SDC detectors. Image credit: LASP/UC Boulder

The SDC is all about counting dust. That’s right, dust. Each time a particle hits one of its detectors, a small electric signal registers. Unglamorous as it may sound, space dust is key to understanding both the past and the future of planetary formation. The distribution of debris in our solar system– the way the particles have arranged themselves over the course of the sun’s life– can tell us a lot about how our world and its neighbors came to be. Our sun gives us a home-court advantage; it’s more difficult to study the history of distant planetary systems. Once we have a deeper understanding of our own corner of space, we’ll be better prepared to analyze similar information gathered from light-years away.

As of this writing, all seven experiments are just over 3 billion miles away and receding into the Kuiper Belt at tens of thousands of miles per hour. Next up: a demystifying flyby of another KBO (Kuiper Belt Object), to be chosen and targeted in 2016. We can’t wait to see what New Horizons sends home this time!

#WhySpaceMatters: NASA’s Anniversary

If you’d like to know what’s out there in the universe, it’s an awfully exciting century to be alive! From Vostok to Hubble to New Horizons, ambitious feats of engineering are bringing our corner of the cosmos into fuller detail and color all the time. At AstroCamp, we’re all about harnessing the wonder of space exploration as fuel for passion and inquiry. We hope that some of the students who peer through our telescopes into the deep, dark beyond will keep looking and pushing the boundaries of human knowledge as part of the next generation of scientists.


Campers at AstroCamp are #whyspacematters!

Space matters because it stimulates curiosity, drives innovation, and lends context to our existence on Earth. It matters because it changes our perspective on everything. In honor of NASA’s anniversary, here are a few mind-bending ideas that show #whyspacematters to us.


Campers get a closer look at the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. Credit: Andy Balendy

Look up at the night sky. You are experiencing a tiny gravitational pull from every star and planet you see, and hundreds of billions that you don’t see. Even weirder, your body is pulling back on each one! If you replaced the sun with a black hole of the same mass, Earth’s orbit wouldn’t change, but 8.3 minutes later we’d get very, very cold. That’s the amount of time it would take for the sun’s last light to reach Earth.

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Two black holes (shown in purple) in spiral galaxy Caldwell 5. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DSS

When you look out into space, you’re also looking back in time. The average distance to a star you can see with the naked eye is in the ballpark of 100 light-years. This means the image your eyes receive is about 100 years old. The closest star to earth is 4.22 light-years away. If it mysteriously disappeared right this second, we’d have no idea until 2019! The Milky Way and its nearest neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, are on course to collide in roughly 4 billion years, as our sun nears the end of its life. Galaxies are mostly empty space, so the odds of things actually smashing into each other are remote, but any life forms present at that time will witness a complete transformation of the night sky.

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New Horizons LORRI image of Pluto, 7/14/2015. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Over 70 years ago, within the memory of many people alive today, no spacecraft had ever left our home planet. As of this writing, 533 people have orbited Earth. 12 have walked on the moon. A telescope the size of a school bus floats in space, probing the history of the universe. Robots study nearby worlds on our behalf. Voyager 1, which has been sailing towards the distant stars since 1977, is now three times as far from the sun as Pluto, over 12 billion miles away from Earth… and counting!

Happy Anniversary NASA! Here’s to the bright future of exploring the great unknown.

Train Like an Astronaut

What does it take to get into space? A great place to start that journey is tons and tons of training. For NASA astronauts, training can come in a variety of different ways. The Neutral Buoyancy lab in Austin, Texas is one of the best training facilities in the country. At the Neutral Bouyancy lab astronauts suit up and SCUBA dive to complete mock missions just as they would if they were in outer space. This training is possible because the buoyancy force of water simulates the weightless effect of being in orbit. Click the link below for additional information on the Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/home/index.html#.U9KYqPldVzo

Here at Astrocamp, we have created our own Astronaut training program that mimics the one done at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. Students get trained in SCUBA diving procedures and safety, then they eventually complete a mock mission to repair a broken satellite. The neutral buoyancy for the water also makes it easy to bust some funky moves in what we like to call, the turtle dance!

Feature Image Provided By: Hodel Family


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



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!