Tag Archives: Solar System

The Tale of Sir Isaac Newton

There’s an old story of Newton sitting underneath a tree during his studies, when an apple fell and hit him on the head, leading him to begin his adventures into solving the mysteries of gravity. While it’s doubtful that this fanciful tale actually happened, it is true that Newton had an incredibly significant impact on our understanding of gravity.

Isaac Newton

English mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) contemplates the force of gravity, as the famous story goes, on seeing an apple fall in his orchard, circa 1665. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Isaac Newton was born in England on Christmas in 1642 to a widowed mother. His father, after whom he was named, had died three months prior. When his mother remarried, Newton went to live with his grandmother and began his education. In 1661, he began attending Trinity College in Cambridge.

It was there where he began his great works.

Isaac Newton 1

Influenced by modern philosophers and astronomers, Newton began to develop his own mathematical methods that would later evolve into a rough form of what we know today as calculus. Inspired by the works of astronomer Johannes Kepler, he began developing theories on gravity. When Cambridge shut down temporarily as a response to the Great Plague, Newton spent two years at home developing these theories, along with many others.

In 1687, he published his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, which set out his famous three laws of motion. The papers went on to combine these with his law of universal gravitation to investigate and explain Kepler’s work on orbital mechanics, explaining how the planets move about the solar system.

Isaac Newton 3

Newton continued to contribute to the world of physics and mathematics until his death. He built telescopes, advanced the field of optics, formulated many laws and theories, and even developed ways to calculate the speed of sound. It’s been said that his work helped to advance every subject of mathematics and physics that was being studied at that time, and even today we still use his works in our understanding of the world.

Written By: Scott Yarbrough

The Space Between Planets

Have you ever really sat down to think about how much space there is in the universe? It’s pretty inconceivable, but there are some useful tools that can help put things in perspective. You’ve already seen a scale model of our solar system by mass, so here is a model of the space between our planets that can fit in your pocket!


What you need:

  • Long strip of paper
  • Marker
  • Brain

First, cut a strip of paper long enough that it roughly spans the distance of your arms. Then, have a marker handy to be ready to indicate where each planet will lie.

  1. Label one end of the strip as the sun and the other as Pluto/Kuiper belt.
    1. This will show the full distance between the sun and the outer reaches of the solar system.
  2. Fold the paper in half and crease it. That line is for Uranus, it is roughly halfway between Pluto and the sun!
  3. Fold it in half again (it should now be in quarters). The crease between Uranus and Pluto is for Neptune.
  4. The crease that is between the sun and Uranus is for Saturn.
  5. Now fold the sun to Saturn and mark Jupiter in that crease.
    1. We have completed all of the gaseous outer planets, meaning that all that is left are the rocky inner planets, which fit between the sun and Jupiter!
  6. Fold the sun to Jupiter and label it as the asteroid belt, the area in our solar system where some of the largest known asteroids live.
  7. Now fold the sun to the asteroid belt. This is where Mars goes.
    1. We will complete the remaining three planets in the last step.
  8. Fold the sun to Mars, then fold in half again. Closest to the sun is Mercury followed by Venus, then Earth.

planets 9

Take a look, roll it up, and there you have it! A basic scale model of the distances between the planets of our solar system that can fit in your pocket. Would you have been able to guess how much space there is relatively between our planets? Did any of the spacings surprise you?

Written By: Mimi Garai

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

A Planet Size Comparison

A planet is an astronomical body orbiting a star or stellar remnant that: is massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity, not massive enough to do fusion, and has cleared its neighboring region of planetesimals.

Our star (the sun) has 8 planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Though these planets share a common place in the Universe, they are vastly different in composition, temperature, distance from the sun, and size.


But how different are these sizes? To demonstrate this we can use a 1 pound chunk of clay. Roll it out into as symmetrical a log as you can. Cut it into 10 equal pieces.

Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, takes seven of those pieces, 70% of the solar system by mass (excluding the sun). Saturn, the second largest planet, will take two of the remaining chunks, 20% of the mass of the solar system. This means that the last 10% of mass of the solar system is the six remaining planets.

planet roll

Roll out the next chunk and cut it into ten more pieces. Uranus and Neptune are the next largest planets, the get 4 and 5 pieces respectively. The last four planets are the inner rocky planets. Earth and Venus are considered to be “sister planets”, they are roughly the same size and will get 5 and 4 pieces of the remaining clay. The last tiny chunk should be rolled out and cut into three pieces this time. Since Mars is larger than Mercury, it will get two of the pieces, and Mercury will get the last one.

planet model

There you go! A clay model of the planets in our solar system by mass. Try to test your friends, family, students, or teachers to see if they can get the scale right.

Written by: Mimi Garai

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! 

File Aug 31, 11 41 08 AM

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.

SDC assembly

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!


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!