Filed under: in the news
This blog is no longer active. For more about the planets and the people who discover new worlds, please visit Women in Planetary Science.com. Thank you.
Filed under: Mercury
The MESSENGER mission to Mercury is underway! I have a lot to say about this mission and its goals, but today I just have some video for you to enjoy. Go to
to see movies of the launch (spectacular!) and assembly of this fine spacecraft. Widget and I particularly enjoy watching the time-lapse assembly videos accessible fom the last link on the page. It’s quite entetaining to see the guys in white clean suits scurry around and make the mission happen!
Filed under: in the news
NASA’s 10 astronauts currently on the space station will hold a press conference tonight, 6:08 Eastern time. It will be carried live on NASA TV and on the web at http://www.nasa.gov/ntv.
Go. Watch. Pray.
Filed under: sun
Filed under: sun
Some days, it’s difficult to believe that the gentle yellow sun presiding over idyllic scenes of toddlers picking dandelions, babies napping on a blanket, and moms preparing fresh-squeezed lemonade (okay, grabbing the juice boxes) is the same
active and dangerous
releasing powerful chunks of its corona,
hydrogen, and high-energy particles
that can damage spacecraft
disrupt cell phone signals
and wreak havoc
but it is.
NASA’s twin STEREO spacecraft, orbiting the sun a few degees away from each other (one on either side of earth in its orbit), have just returned some amazing images of our closest star. The STEREO spacecraft were launched just before Halloween by a team of NASA scientists and engineers who spent years imagining, designing, proposing, refining, building, assembling, and finally transporting the instruments and spacecraft down to Cape Canaveral. It was a beautiful night launch (video here). All went well, and the images coming back are simply fantastic.
Of course, the images only tell a small part of the story. There are four sets of instruments proposed and built by teams from universities and national laboratories from Washington, D.C., to California. These instruments measure many different aspects of the solar radiation. When more data has been returned, it will be analysed and reported on in scientific publications. We’ll follow along here as news is announced, but for now, let’s just sit back and enjoy the first images from this amazing mission.
Start with this video for kids. Then feel free to browse around the mission site, including the Learning Center that they’ve set up for members of the public — you and me — and our children. It’s got everything, from a FAQ to sample classroom activity ideas. There are also amazing new 3D images (released just last week!) that can be seen on the web or at many science museums and planetariums around the U.S. — go to the mission home page to find out where!
Filed under: Our Solar System
Today we’ll be taking a brief look at the planets in our solar system and getting comfortable with just what’s out there. There are many ways to approach science learning with little ones; one appoach is to introduce basic concepts at an early age and follow their interest. Memorization of key facts is not the most critical skill at this age; rather, I would encourage you to focus on two other aspects:
1. There are many worlds out there, both in our solar system and around other stars.
2. Each planet is different.
The second point is actually key. In our solar system, some are rocky, some are icy, and some are composed of swirling gases. In other planetary systems, there may be rocky, icy, gaseous, earth-like planets, and/or others that we can’t even imagine. We’re just beginning to discover planets around other stars, and we don’t even have the technology to really probe what the newly discovered planets are like at this point. Some may be very similar to Earth (many astronomers think this must be so), but we are only starting to discover their true natures. This is going to be a very exciting area of discovery over the next couple decades, as our kids grow up, so it’s nice to introduce them to it now.
But back to basics. There are eight planets in our solar system (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune). Three additional large bodies (Pluto, Ceres, and Sedna) have been recently reclassified as dwarf planets. There are thousands of smaller rocky or icy protoplanets called asteroids (the rocky ones) and comets (the icy ones). They all formed at about the same time, in what is called the primordial solar nebula.
All planets orbit the sun. Each orbit is an ellipse, and both orbital time and path are predictable using a simple mathematical relationship. Both the size and nature of the planets change with distance from the sun, among other factors. Here’s a brief introduction, just the facts that might fit on a name tag for each major planet:
Mercury – very small and very close to the sun. Mercury is a planet of extremes; the “daytime” side (facing the sun) is very hot, while the “nighttime” side (away from the sun) is very cold.
Venus – HOT! Venus is very hot and has active volcanos, quakes, and the accompanying scars covering its crust.
Earth – the perfect distance from the sun to support life; this planet is the only one that is known to have liquid water on the surface.
Mars – the red planet. Mars is very similar to Earth, but without an atmosphere, it can’t hold on to its water very long.
Jupiter – the largest planet, a gas giant. It is easily identified by the great red spot, visible in the picture below and through many observatory telescopes.
Saturn – also a gas giant. Although it is often pictured with two or three rings around it, there are actually hundreds of these dust rings, along with regular gaps where no dust or moons can be seen.
Uranus – another gas giant. Uranus gas is composed of water, ammonia, and methane. The methane above the atmosphere makes it look bluish-green.
Neptune – the farthest gas giant, mostly hydrogen and helium, with enough methane to make it look blue to us.
How to remember the names and order of the planets? Here’s a simple mnemonic to try: My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Neptune.
Tune in tomorrow for pictures, videos, and talk about the latest imagery of our closest star — the Sun!
Jupiter and Saturn, the gas giants, dwarf the smaller rocky and icy bodies of the solar system. The smaller planets in the front row are, from left to right, Earth, Venus, Mars, Mercury, and the dwarf planet Pluto.
Resource of the day: the planetary fact sheets at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s web site, http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/solar_system/planets/planets_index.html