Archive for the 'Space' Category

Human Space Flight and the Civil War

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Interpretation

Happy anniversaries, everyone!

In case you didn’t know, today is the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight, and the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War.

While we don’t recommend that you celebrate by attempting to secede from the Union or launch yourself into space, today is definitely a date worth remembering and appreciating.

How to acknowledge the day? Start by following the National Park Service’s Civil War Reporter. Beglan O’Brien, a fictional Civil War era correspondent, is posting daily dispatches on the Civil War as it happens (happened) and you can follow him through the NPS website, Twitter and Facebook. And this evening, why not throw your very own Yuri’s Night party, in honor of Yuri Gagarin‘s first flight into space? Or, combine the two and create a piece of artwork featuring Abraham Lincoln as an astronaut.

Oh, wait, someone already did that.



Science Wednesday: You’re Never too Young to be a Scientist

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

What do you think the qualifications to be a scientist are? A PhD? A labcoat? Awesome Einstein-like hair? What about age?

Most scientists are adults, it’s true. But there’s no reason that anyone, kids included, can’t use the scientific method to ask questions, make observations, design experiments and gather results. Two recent stories in the news show us just how fantastic kids are at being scientists.

Kathryn Gray Discovers a Supernova

On Sunday, January 2, 2011 (three days ago!), 10-year-old Kathryn Grey discovered Supernova 2010lt.

Kathryn was examining photographs of the galaxy UGC 3378
taken on December 31, 2010.  Comparing photographs of the galaxy taken at different times, Kathryn noticed a bright spot that was present in the newer picture that was absent from the older picture (go here to see the images). That bright spot? A supernova.

A supernova is a star that’s blowing up. When a star dies in supernova, an incredible amount of energy is released. So much light and radiation can emit from a supernova that the star becomes brighter than the rest of the galaxy it’s in. With something that bright happening in the sky, you might think finding a supernova is pretty easy. It’s not. First, supernovae are rare. In a galaxy the size of our Milky Way, a supernova happens about once every 50 years. Second, the universe is the biggest thing there is. That’s a lot of sky to take pictures of and a lot of pictures to look through. Less than 2,000 supernovae have ever been officially discovered, and Kathryn’s hard work and sharp eyes make her the youngest person to ever find one.

Primary School Students Publish a Scientific Paper on Bees

Did you know that buff-tailed bumblebees are able to solve color and pattern puzzles? No? Well, neither did anyone else…until a group of 8-10 year old students figured it out.

Students from Blackawton Primary School in Devon, England, are now the youngest scientists to have their work published in the peer-reviewed journal Biology Letters with their new paper, “Blackawton Bees.”

The paper, which looks at the ability of bees to find food using visual cues and concludes,

…bumblebees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from…

is based on a question the students developed themselves, is written in their voices (included the Methods section titled: “The Puzzle…duh duh duuuhhh”), and includes diagrams the children drew (read the full paper here).

The scientists who reviewed the students’ paper say that their finding is unique, and the data they presented is compelling. And while one referee was quoted as saying they thought “the kids couldn’t do it,” the students’ results have proved them wrong.

So if you’re a kid, how can you become a scientist?

  • Find questions about the world that interest you
  • Figure out how to make solving those questions fun. Can it be a game? a puzzle?
  • Don’t feel frustrated about things you don’t know – be excited at the change to learn something new
  • Find adults to help you if you need it. Kathryn Grey and the students at Blackawton didn’t work alone – they had adults there to help them learn how to use equipment, design experiments, and just be an extra brain or two if they got stuck.

And if you want to experience another example of fantastic kid-lead scientific discovery? Stop by the museum and try out our Parasaurolophus cranial crest interactive.

For years paleontologists debated the role of Parasaurolophus’s cranial crest. They thought it had worked like a snorkel, a weapon, a way to tell males and females apart, and a tool for temperature regulation.  Then, 14-year-old Della Drury came along. Della hypothesized that the space inside the crest worked as a resonating chamber, amplifying the sounds the dinosaurs made to make communication easier. Della tested the idea for her 9th grade science fair project, and her results support the hypothesis. Today, paleontologists think that the Parasaurolophus’ crests may have served multiple functions, but a resonating chamber may very well have been one of them.  So stop by the museum and blow into the cranial crest – can you call out like a dinosaur?


Five Golden Rings…From an Asteroid

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Today is the Fifth Day of Christmas and, according to the song, your true love should be giving you five golden rings any moment now. However, if you’re expecting some small and shiny circles of metal, don’t be too disappointed if instead you get a bunch of birds. When the song was written, the rings in question weren’t jewelry to wear on your hands, but rather ring-necked birds, like the common pheasant. We don’t recommend you try wearing the birds as jewelry.

Ring-necked pheasant - you get five of them!

If your true love was going to skip the avian presents and give you five actual golden rings, there’s a good chance the gold used to make those rings might have come from outer space, delivered to Earth by an asteroid billions of years ago.

New research indicates that a series of enormous asteroid impacts 4.5 billion years ago are the source of Earth’s gold. The largest of the asteroids to hit the planet is estimated to have been the same size as Pluto.


A Holiday Greeting from the International Space Station

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

A holiday message from NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Cady Coleman and Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency.

A beautiful message and the secret to the perfect poofy hairstyle!

Solstice Eclipse

by Toby Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the luster of mid-day to objects below.

– Clement Clarke Moore

The moon looks red when it's inside Earth's shadow

Stargazers across North America will witness a rare December solstice / lunar eclipse this evening.  The moon will appear to change colors as the Earth’s shadow passes across the lunar surface turning it from gray, to orange, and then, finally, red.

This spectacular display happens when the moon passes behind the earth and enters the earth’s shadow. The earth block’s the sun’s light, which normally shines on the moon and causes it to look white to us, and changing colors of the moon come courtesy of our atmosphere, which will filter the available light.

Diagram of a Lunar Eclipse

Tonight’s eclipse is starting at 11:33 p.m. Mountain Time, December 20th (your start time may vary, depending on the local time zone).  Some aspects of the event will also be visible to viewers in Western Europe and Asia, but North America is best positioned for viewing. Unlike a solar eclipse, tonight’s event can be seen safely with the naked eye requiring no special equipment (blankets, thermos bottles of hot cocoa, and a lawn chair are optional; but what the heck, you’ve probably got most of that stuff just lying around the house).

What makes tonight’s eclipse even more special is that it’s happening on the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year. A total lunar eclipse coinciding with the winter solstice is fairly unique; the last time the two events coincided was 456 years ago.  Luckily, we won’t have to wait that long for another eclipse to come along: the next one is slated for April 15, 2014.  Granted, Tax Day isn’t nearly as festive an event as the solstice, and the visibility won’t be nearly as good here in North America, so get out there and enjoy tonight’s show!

Friday Quick Links

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Hoekman's blunt-snouted dolphin (Platalearostrum hoekmani)

Researchers have proposed pulleys, sleds and wooden rollers as possible tools to move the huge slabs of rock needed to create Stonehenge. Now there’s a new mechanism added to the mix: balls. A combined system of ox-power, grooved rails and wooden ball bearings may have been just the trick to move 45 ton stones.

Planetary scientists in Boulder, Colorado, hypothesize that the origin of Saturn’s rings may be ice stripped off  a long-gone moon that crashed into Saturn 4 billion years ago (note: the link includes a podcast).

A new prehistoric dolphin species (and a balloon-headed dolphin at that!) was just described based on a bone found by a Dutch fisherman. You never know who’s going to be a part of the next scientific discovery…

Still looking for that perfect holiday present for that special someone? Why not name a mathematical theorem after them? After all, nothing says love like a whole bunch of cosines.

Meet the Clusterwink snail: a snail that looks, and acts, a lot like a Christmas tree light. When threatened, the fingernail-sized snail generates pulses of bioluminescent light from a single spot on it body and the snail’s opaque shell diffuses the blue-green spectrum of that light, making the whole shell glow.

2,400 year old pot of soup found by archaeologists in China.

Massive volcanic activity may have played a big role in the Permian Extinction and the death of the dinosaurs.


Geminid Meteor Shower

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

A Geminid Meteor over Florida

I know some of you may have felt a little let down when this year’s Leonid Meteor Shower wasn’t too spectacular in Colorado this year. However, the skies may make it up to us tonight with the Geminid Meteor Shower.

After the moon sets (around midnight or so), there will be nothing to block the view of what may end up being over 100 meteors/hour streaking across the sky.

If you want to see the meteor shower, find a spot away from light pollution and look to the northeast. We’re supposed to have a partially clear night here in Colorado, so it should be pretty special.

Enjoy and, as always, good seeing!

Magnetic Filament Erupts on the Sun

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

A magnetic filament more than 50 times wider than the Earth has been errupting on the Sun since Saturday, December 4th.

Magnetic filaments are threads of hot, charged plasma formed in magnetic loops on the sun that, when seen in profile, look like giant, glowing loops of fire called “prominences” extending out from the sun.

When NASA first saw this magnetic filament, it was more than 250,000 miles long. By early this morning, the loop of plasma stretched more than 435,000 miles long – the full radius of the Sun (and the largest recorded one I can find mention of).

There’s a chance that this long filament will break apart as coronal mass ejections, releasing plasma, magnetic fields and electromagnetic radiation into space. It’s an incredible sight to see.

Want to see the prominence for yourself? If you have a telescope with ultraviolet filters, you can. If anyone takes photos of the magnetic filament, we’d love to see them!

You can continue to track the prominence’s development through NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Arsenic and Old Lakes, or, NASA Announces a New Life Form

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

Mono Lake

At a conference today, NASA announced that the first known life form to use arsenic to make its DNA and proteins: the bacteria GFAJ-1.

This new life form is a surprise. Out of all the elements on Earth (watch Daniel Radcliffe if you need to remember what they all are), life is mainly composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus. Other elements just don’t go and insert themselves into that group. Or, at least, they didn’t. GFAJ-1 is able to substitute arsenic for phosphorus, the only known living organism to be able to do this.

Many people are also talking about possible implications from the discovery for astrobiology. If life can grow on Earth outside of the parameters we expect, what extraterrestrial environments could be home to life?

For a summary and analysis of the discovery, read on here.

Pluto: The Biggest Dwarf Planet?

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

New Images of Pluto from the Hubble Space Telescope

Pluto’s had a tough couple of years, hasn’t it? First Eris showed up. An object in our solar system thought to be larger than Pluto, the 2005 discovery of the dwarf planet brought Pluto’s status as a planet into question (in that regard, Eris’ name is quite appropriate: “Eris” was the Greek goddess of discord and strife). Then in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) declared that Pluto would be reclassified as a “dwarf planet.”

But now, a little bit of good news.

Last month astronomers were able to measure Eris by watching it pass in front of a star (learn more about how they measured Eris here).

By measuring how long the star disappeared behind Eris, a measurement that corresponds to Eris’ size, astronomers now believe that Eris may be no larger than 1,454 miles across. Pluto is believed to be 1,456 miles across. So is Pluto 2 miles wider? Maybe.

The size of both dwarf planets is still being explored, and with measurements so close, the winner of this size contest will likely be debated for quite some time.

However, even if Pluto is bigger than Eris, that doesn’t mean a promotion back to full planet status. Pluto still hasn’t “cleared out” its orbit, joining or consuming the smaller objects in its orbit, one of the three requirements for “planethood” established by the IAU. Pluto’s also in a neighborhood full of similarly-sized bodies, and so its dwarf status is still solid. But after five years of beat downs and demotions, if Pluto does turn out to be the largest dwarf planet, that’s still something to celebrate.

For more on the Pluto planet debate, watch PBS’s The Pluto Files.

March 2023

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