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Searching For An Elusive Meteorite March 13, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Space Exploration, Think About It.
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Credit: University of Western Ontario.

Ever wondered what a meteor falling to Earth looks like? Me too! Astronomers at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario managed to capture a very rare video of this cool event.

Using The Sky

So, how did the astronomers actually capture these images? Well, they have a network of sky-cameras in Southern Ontario. These cameras regularly scan across the sky, looking out for meteors. A professor at the university – Peter Brown – specializes in the study of meteors and meteorites. He found that just last week, the cameras grabbed an image of a massive fireball. Not only that, but the Physics and Astronomy Department also received numerous phone calls and emails from Ontario residents who had seen the light.

The Hunt Is On

Falling Meteor Now, astronomers want to find the one or more meteorites that may have hit the ground. They believe the meteorite could be in the Parry Sound area of Ontario and they’re hoping that residents there can help them to find the meteorites. Brown and Wayne Edwards – a post-doctoral student at the university – are working together to find the elusive meteorites.

Edwards explains:

Most meteoroids burn up by the time they hit an altitude of 60 or 70 kilometers from Earth. We tracked this one to an altitude of about 24 kilometers so we are pretty sure there are at least one, and possibly many meteorites, that made it to the ground.

The Challenge Continues

Falling Meteor Map Still, it’s no easy feat to investigate such a large area to find the meteorite. Fortunately, astronomers have narrowed down the area a bit. They are looking at a space of approximately 12 square kilometers.Edwards and Brown are obviously super keen to find the meteorite, which is no surprise, given how much they can learn from the discovery.

Edwards says:

We would love to find a recovered meteorite on this one, because we have the video and we have the data and by putting that together with the meteorite, there is a lot to be learned.

Better yet, they have created a map to provide even more help in locating the meteorite. As for picking up the meteorite if one is found – at least the astronomers don’t need to have strong arms. The meteorite is expected to only weigh a kilogram!

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What’s The Deal With Pluto? October 23, 2007

Posted by Weird Science Writer in Easy As Pie, Solar System, Space Exploration.
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When Lauren Tunnell heard that Pluto’s classification as a planet had been changed, she set out to discover just what was happening. She learned two things: scientists sure do like to argue and regardless of how we want to classify Pluto, it has some very cool and interesting features.

Pluto 2

Credit: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Once upon a time, students were taught that there were eight planets in the solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Then, in 1930, a ninth planet was discovered and it was named Pluto. For 76 years, there were nine planets in the solar system. That is, until 2006, when it was decided that Pluto isn’t really a planet, and there are only eight planets in the solar system after all. So, what happened to Pluto? And why has it been demoted from planet status?

New Information About Pluto

Pluto isn’t being ignored. In fact, scientists are learning more and more about this distant world. We now know Pluto’s approximate size, mass, temperature, and chemical composition. !n 1978, Pluto’s largest moon, Charon was discovered, and in 2005, we learned that Pluto has two additional moons, Nix and Hydra.

Other Possible Planets

However, we have also learned about a lot of other celestial bodies. Most notably, Eris was discovered in 2005. Eris’ orbit is far away from the sun (three times farther than Pluto!) but it is slightly larger than Pluto. People started to wonder if Eris should be considered the tenth planet.

If that isn’t confusing enough – then more potential planets started to turn up. It was discovered that Pluto doesn’t orbit alone, but is actually a part of the Kuiper belt – a large ring of rocky objects encircling the sun (like the asteroid belt but much bigger!). Although Pluto is the largest of these rocky objects that has been discovered so far, it really isn’t particularly special or distinctive from the other Kuiper belt objects. Nobody knows how many of these Kuiper belt entities exist, but at least five with diameters of 500 km or more have been identified. Does this bring our total number of planets to fifteen? What about the worlds we haven’t even discovered yet? Could this mean that there may be hundreds, or even thousands, of planets in the solar system?

What Makes a Planet?

All of this newfound information has forced scientists to reconsider what is meant by the word planet, and they started to consider the qualities that the eight major planets have in common. Check out these quick facts:

  • All eight of the major planets orbit the sun along the same plane. Kuiper belt objects, including Pluto, orbit on a different orbit that is diagonal to the orbit of the planets (Eris has an even more eccentric orbit than Pluto).
  • The planets are pretty big! Even Mercury, the smallest of the eight, is many times larger than Pluto.
  • The planets have their orbits all to themselves. None of the eight major planets have asteroids or other planet-like objects sharing their orbital path.



Credit: NASA. This image depicts Pluto in true color. Pluto is mostly brown, which according to NASA is thought to be from frozen methane deposits metamorphosed by faint sunlight.

So Yeah, What About Pluto?

Since Pluto fails to meet these criteria, it was decided that Pluto was, in fact, not a planet but something distinctly different. Pluto has now been reclassified as a dwarf planet, along with Eris and the asteroid belt object, Ceres. Over a dozen other celestial objects are also being considered for dwarf planet status (including Pluto’s largest moon, Charon).

It’s Not Quite Finished Yet

Of course, all of this is subject to change as we learn more and more about the solar system and require new words to describe the alien worlds we’ve discovered. One thing is for sure – there is still a lot we don’t know about the solar system but no doubt, scientists will continue to argue out the nuances of these discoveries as they are made!

Lauren Tunnell is an educator and freelance writer living in Houston, Texas.

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Total Eclipse August 10, 2007

Posted by Weird Science Writer in Easy As Pie, Eclipses, Space Exploration.
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If you want to see next year’s eclipse, it’s going to require a lot more travel than you might expect! Lauren Tunnell reports on the newest tourist attraction.

Solar Eclipse 1999

Credit: All pictures kindly provided by Luc Viatour. These pictures were taken during the highly publicized eclipse in 1999. Wow!

Are you taking a vacation next summer? Where would you like to visit? Paris? Disneyworld? Would you like to visit someplace sunny? Scenic? Cosmopolitan? Or do you want to visit Siberia?

A Surprising Vacation

Yes, that’s right, Siberia – the frigid arctic land in eastern Russia. The Russian government used to send convicted criminals to Siberia as punishment, and yet in August of 2008 Siberia will become one of the hottest tourist sites on the planet.

Get Ready For The Eclipse

Solar Eclipse 2Why is everybody heading to Siberia? On August 1st, 2008, a total eclipse of the sun will be visible from Siberia. A total eclipse occurs when the moon passes in front of the sun and completely obscures it. Total solar eclipses are very rare! They happen only once approximately every eighteen months, and are only visible from a small area of the planet. Total eclipses that are visible in any one particular spot on Earth are centuries apart. Most people go through their lives without ever witnessing one. That, however, is changing as interest in eclipses continues to grow.

Eclipse Tourism

In our modern world of reliable, affordable global travel, more and more people are going to the eclipse rather than waiting for the eclipse to travel to them. It may be three hundred years before a total eclipse of the sun comes to your hometown, but in the meantime you can travel to an ideal spot to witness this natural phenomenon.

Eclipse Of 1999

An eclipse on August 11th, 1999, is generally believed to be the most viewed eclipse in history. Hoards of people traveled to Europe to witness the natural marvel. The extraordinary number of tourists who were drawn to this event sparked public awareness of the potential eclipse tourism market.

August 1st, 2008

Solar Eclipse 3The 2008 eclipse probably won’t top the one in 1999 as the most viewed in history. The 1999 eclipse had the advantage of appearing in France, Great Britain and other areas of the world that are already major tourist draws (even without eclipses!). Still, Siberia isn’t doing too badly as hotel rooms along the path of the eclipse are already starting to fill up. Also, the eclipse will be visible in some of the most populated areas of Siberia, including the largest city, Novosibirsk, which is the third largest city in all of Russia! Travel to the area should be far more convenient and comfortable than one would expect from the traditional images shown of Siberia. The eclipse will also be visible in parts of Canada and China, but in very isolated areas of these countries.

If You Can’t Make It

If you won’t be able to make the trip to Russia next year, there will be other opportunities for you to see an eclipse. A total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017 will be visible in much of the United States. Still, that’s a long way off so if you can manage to start planning now, a trip to see the eclipse in Siberia next summer might just be an exciting reality!

Lauren Tunnell is an educator and freelance writer living in Houston, Texas.

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The Teacher In Space Program: 21 Years Later July 10, 2007

Posted by Weird Science Writer in Easy As Pie, Neat Science Jobs, Space Exploration.
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When biologist and teacher Lauren Tunnell investigated the Teacher in Space Program, she found that even after disaster struck, a passion for learning has kept the program alive and thriving.

Space Challenger Lift Off

21 Years Ago

On the 28th of January in 1986, America had its eyes turned toward Florida for the launch of space shuttle mission STS-51-L. All space shuttle launches are exciting, but this one was really exciting because schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe would be aboard this mission as the first participant for the Teacher in Space Program.

Space ChallengerFirst Teacher In Space

McAuliffe and her back-up, Barbara Morgan, were chosen from over 11,000 applicants for the honor of becoming the first teacher in space. For several months, they trained together in Houston for the journey into orbit. McAuliffe’s mission was to teach school-aged children about the space program and inspire young people to reach for their dreams-especially in the areas of science and technology. Morgan was also prepared to make the trip in the event that McAuliffe was unable to.

Millions Watched In Anticipation

As she was getting ready for her space flight, McAuliffe received a lot of attention from the media. The American people liked her and they were excited about her passion and energy for teaching them about the space program. On the day of the launch, millions of people-including many children in classrooms all across America-stopped what they were doing to watch television and see McAuliffe’s eagerly awaited send-off on Space Shuttle Challenger.

An Unexpected Outcome

Tragically, seventy-three seconds after it left the launch platform that morning, Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart and its remnants fell into the ocean. While countless people watched on television, the spacecraft was destroyed and everybody aboard was killed, including McAuliffe.

challenger-accident-3.jpg challenger-accident-2.jpg challenger-accident.jpg

The Mission Continues

Although McAuliffe was gone, the Teacher in Space program continued. McAuliffe’s backup, Morgan, continued her mission of space exploration education both through her work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and her continued employment as an elementary school teacher. In 1998, Morgan joined the astronaut corp, and has been employed as a full-time educator and astronaut ever since. Although she still has not been to space, that is about to change very soon.

McAuliffe and Morgan

Credit: All pictures courtesy of NASA.

Passion For Space Exploration

Morgan is scheduled to finally become the first teacher in space on the 7th of August in 2007 as a member of the STS-118 crew. From space she will continue McAuliffe’s original mission to instruct students from orbit, inspire future astronauts and engineers, and inform the general public of the goings-on of the space exploration.

Morgan is scheduled to teach from space next month. You can follow her journey and her lessons at NASA STS-118 Education Resources.

Lauren Tunnell is an educator and freelance writer living in Houston, Texas.

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All Aboard June 14, 2007

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Easy As Pie, Space Exploration.
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Feeling a little bored today? How about a tourist trip to space? It may seem like a joke but by 2012, it could very well be a reality. For adventurous space fiends, you may find yourself hopping on a space jet and scooting off into the sky.

Space Jet

Credit: Mark Newson

Count Me In

Starting in 2008, a European company called EADS has exciting plans to start their creation of the space jet. The company wants to provide a way for people to safely and comfortably experience space. This means that space exploration will soon become space tourism.

Ready, Set, Runway

The space jet would depart from a normal runway like most planes but it would also give its passengers 3 minutes of weightlessness at the top of the climb. Nice one! I’ve always wanted to play a game of tag while floating in space.

Oh, The Perks Of Flying

Passengers on the space jet would get a lovely, scenic 90 minute flight at more than a 100 km altitude. The usual cramped plane seats? Not on this plane! Passengers would be in special seats that minimize the intense effects of take-off and landing. Large windows would also provide passengers with a brilliant, clear view of their travels.

Space Jet Seats

Credit: Mark Newson


The space jet would use normal engines for take off, before a rocket engine would then powerfully fire the space jet, rapidly taking it beyond 60 km in only 80 seconds. Now that is fast. Maybe not the best idea if you get travel sick! Barf bag anyone?

Up, Up And Away

Once the rocket shuts down, the space jet would continue with enough velocity to send its passengers 100 km into space. I wonder if there will be airline attendants offering refreshments at that time?

Back To Earth

When the space jet begins its descent back to Earth, the pilot would direct it back into the atmosphere, with the jet engines fueling the plane to the airport. Happy to be home on Earth or ready for another trip?

Bon Voyage

Are you already packing your bags? You might want to think twice before you get too excited. For starters, you’ll want to start saving up because it’s not cheap. A trip in the space jet is estimated to cost a little over $200,000. Yikes! Still, you never know. If your parents won’t give you a space jet ticket for your birthday, hopefully Santa Claus will be generous.

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