NASA Open House

May 13, 2011

Looking for something to do in the LA or DC areas this weekend?  Check out the NASA Open Houses in at least two areas across the country!  For West Coasters, there’s the JPL Open House in Pasadena, CA.  East Coasters, how about the GSFC Open House in Greenbelt, MD.  Both are free and open to the public — and a fantastic opportunity to get a peek into the nation’s space program!  Live farther away (like Australia or New Zealand)?  You can still take a peek at the latest news about our solar system AND a page of fun for kids at NASA’s Solar System Exploration page (also on Facebook).

Have fun!

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Planetary telescopes for preschoolers: how to

March 29, 2011

Construction paper, tape, hole punch, pin, stickers or crayonsThis is a fun craft/activity to help little kids learn about planets and the stars.  There are many ways to make a planetary telescope; this is one simple way that’s easy for busy parents to help their kids make their very own telescope and learn about the solar system.

What you’ll make: (nonworking) telescopes that your kids can use to view the planets, stars, and, well, just about anything else.

What you’ll need: Construction paper or cardstock, tape, hole punch, straight or safety pin, and pictures of the solar system or constellations. 

Prep time: 5 minutes, for downloading pictures of the solar system from this NASA web site, or for finding your own pictures in a book, magazine, or newspaper.  Set aside a piece of dark construction paper (blue and green work best) and cut a 4″ square of black construction paper for each child. pinholes in black paper make stars Take the pin and poke holes in the black square.  Punch a single hole in the paper if you have a hole punch handy.  If you’re feeling really brave, punch the pinholes in the design of one of the constellations… but this totally isn’t necessary (I didn’t think of it — thanks to Kim in NY for the idea!).

The words you use and the way you implement the activity is up to you, of course.  The idea is to use the rolled up construction paper to look at the planets, and then tape the black paper with pinholes to the end and look out the window or near a bright light to see the “stars.”  In the rest of this post,  I’ll share with you a bit of how it went when Widget (age 6) and I did this project with Little Bear (age 4)’s preschool class, just because it was such fun and I want to remember.  I’ll spare you the pauses, interruptions, and little kid stories, but just know that there were dozens and it was awesome.

Me: Have you ever been outside late at night and seen the stars? (Most of them had, and they wanted to tell me all about it!  After a bit, I continued.)  They’re beautiful, aren’t they?  Did you know that for a very long time, that’s the best that anyone could see the stars?  But people have always wondered about the night sky, and they wanted to be able to see the stars and planets better.  Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a man named Galileo made a new tool so he could see the stars better.  He called it a telescope. (At this, I rolled a piece of paper into a cylinder, lengthwise, and sealed it with a piece of tape.  A staple at each end works better but may be sharp.) 

This is a tool that scientists use to see the stars and planets better.  Would you like one to use today? (Widget handed a cylinder to each child as I talked.)  A real telescope has mirrors and lenses (touch eyeglasses to show what a lens is), but this one will work fine for today.  Is everybody ready to use their telescopes to see the stars? (chorus of yes)

Does anyone know what our closest star is?

The sun!  That’s right, the sun that you see in the sky every day is actually a star, and while it looks warm and friendly to us, when the mommies and daddies who work at NASA made a big enough telescope, they found out that it really looks like this: (show them the real picture of the sun; for very young kids, fold the picture back so that only the largest image shows).  What does that look like to you?  Do you think it’s cold there, or hot?  That’s right, it’s very hot!  It’s so hot that it warms the planets in our solar system.  Would you like to see some planets now?

Mercury is the planet closest to the sun (show them the picture of Mercury).  It is very, very hot on the side closest to the sun, but it has a secret — it turns around (rotates) very, very slowly, so one side is almost always hot — and the other is very, very cold!  On Mercury, it takes almost a year for the planet to turn enough so that it goes from day to night and night to day again, so one side is really hot, and the other side is really cold.  Does that sound like a fun place to live?  (Kids say no.)  Let’s get a better look, through our telescopes!  (Widget shows the picture to the kids, moving it slowly so that each can get a really good look in turn.)

Venus is the next planet.  (Show picture, kids look at it through telescopes while we talk.)  It’s still pretty close to the sun.  Do you think Venus is hot or cold?  (hot)  Venus is hot, and it is not a great place to live. 

Let’s see.  What colors are on this next planet?  (Show the picture of Earth; it is blue, green, and white).  That’s right.  Does anyone know what this planet is?  That’s right, Earth!  What do you think the blue is? (water) What do you think the green is? (grass, trees, or land) And what do you think these white swirly things are that are way up above the water and the land?  That’s right, clouds!  Isn’t this planet beautiful?  Let’s pretend we’re out in space and we can see it with our telescopes.  Ready, set, go! (Show picture as kids look at it through the telescopes.)

And so on and so forth.  After Mars (red, hot, dusty, with occasional dust devils; feel free to compare the red color to the look of a rusty nail if your kids have ever seen one – it’s actually very much the same kind of thing), stop at the asteroid belt and ask them what an asteroid looks like.  They might be disappointed – and that’s ok – it does really just look like a rock.  That’s because it IS a rock. 

Then the gas giants – Jupiter, with its swirly storms; Saturn, with its beautiful rings; Uranus and Neptune, which I admit I did together because we don’t know a lot about them yet and the kids were getting fidgety; and icy Pluto, which used to be a planet but now has its own special name: dwarf planet, and it hangs out at the edge of the solar system with lots of other dwarf planets that mommies and daddies have found with great big telescopes … and some that haven’t even yet been discovered. 

Encouraging the kids to look at each picture through their very own telescope helped keep even the 3 year olds engaged for this 30 minute activity, and I was very happy with the way this activity came out.  It was a fun way to introduce these little ones to the solar system where we live, and I left the black squares with pinholes with the teacher for a craft later in the morning — just tape the squares to the end of the planetary telescope and hold it up to a window or in a well-lit room so that they can see the stars, even if they’re not allowed to stay up late very often to see the real ones.  I loved doing this activity with my kids and the kids at preschool, and I hope this helps you do this activity or another one with your kids too!

More kids solar system activities can be found at NASA Kids.


Planetary telescopes

March 28, 2011

Construction paper, pins, tape, hole punch, stickersToday we’re going to teach Little Bear’s classroom about space!  The kids are 3 and 4, so we’re going to keep it hands-on and light. . . literally!

We’re going to help each kid make a “telescope” out of construction paper and point it at pictures of the planets, to see how they’re different.  After we talk about the planets a while, we’ll tape a piece of black paper with pinholes to the end of the telescope and look through it at a light — to see “the stars.”  It’s an easy craft to make, and I hope it will be a fun way to introduce these little ones to the planets and put the stars within their reach.  (Even if they’re not allowed to stay up late enough to see the real ones!)

I can post instructions and a debrief afterwards — but now, I’ve got to run — Widget and I have a date to teach Bear’s class about the planets and the stars, and I am SO HAPPY.

The idea for this craft came from Marissa, at Our Daylight Adventures, who did the toilet paper telescope craft with her son for Team WhyMommy’s Virtual Science Fair last April.  The Virtual Science Fair was such an amazing gift — I read through all the projects again last week, and I still can’t believe it.  I wanted to go through and leave comments everywhere, since I was too sick to do it April 7 after my surgery (though I read and loved them all!), but who checks comments on year-old posts?


A big day for a little spacecraft: MESSENGER

March 18, 2011

MESSENGER MOIIt was St. Patrick’s Day, and the crowd of nearly 400 waited expectantly in the Kossiakoff auditorium at APL. Irish dancing music was piped into the auditorium as recorded interviews of Daniel O’Shaughnessy, Eric Finnegan, and Eric Calloway played on the giant screen, reviewing the six planetary gravity assists, the five deep space maneuvers, and the big idea to add solar sailing that arose as the spacecraft approached the first Mercury flyby. “It really is akin to a ship on the ocean,” said Calloway, “sails tacking back and forth.”

Onstage, Ralph McNutt reviewed the mission design, interspersing one-liners with technical details to keep the crowd relaxed. “MESSENGER is a flying gas can. Over half the mass is propellant,” he explained, and as quickly as the audience laughed, his words were instantly tweeted by several eager space enthusiasts watching there and over ustream online. Social media was a presence at MOI, with @MESSENGER2011 tweeting her progress throughout the night in words that her followers could understand, with her impact multiplied with each tweet and retweet from space fans throughout the world.

The mood was quiet, expectant, jubilant, and a little tense at Kossiakoff, as the team waited with their families and invited guests to see confirmation that MESSENGER had indeed gone into orbit. Tom Krimigis was there in the second row, a few seats down from Bob Farquhar and others who had worked so hard from proposal to mission operations to make this dream come true. Co-Investigators and engineers were scattered through the audience, their inevitable worry tempered with the confidence that comes from years of solid design and development, followed nearly endless drills for the mission operations team, now prepared to handle any anomaly. The screen showed live shots of the engineers at their workstations, waiting the long eight minutes for confirmation of each maneuver from their faraway spacecraft, the one that they had only a few years ago built in the lab out of parts. Associate Administrator Ed Weiler had spoken to the team earlier, reminding them that this was a major accomplishment: “You only go into orbit around Mercury first once in human history, and that’s what is accomplished tonight.”

As speakers and videos entertained the audience, informing them about new technologies, materials, and designs used on MESSENGER, those in the know waited anxiously to hear the announcement from the Mission Operations Control Center (MOCC) that the burn had been completed successfully and the spacecraft nudged into its oval orbit around Mercury, 155 million kilometers (over 96 million miles) from Earth. Then, through the onstage talk, his words could be heard loud and clear, and the crowd burst into spontaneous applause.

The burn “was right on the money,” confirmed Finnegan, Messenger’s chief engineer, later in the evening. “This is as close you can possibly get to being perfect.” Principal Investigator Sean Solomon reminded the gathering that the science team was thrilled at a successful MOI because it would enable the science that was to come, saying, “This is when the real mission begins.”

In that moment, humankind completed its goal of orbiting Mercury, the sixth planet in the solar system to be orbited by a spacecraft built by humans out of parts.  There was relief and smiles on every face, and we began to relax at a reception in the next room, mingling with scientists, engineers, and managers who had made the mission possible, as @MESSENGER2011 tweeted: “We’ve done it! I’m in orbit around Mercury—the first spaceship to ever do (or tweet) that! #MOI2011.

This is just the beginning of the MESSENGER mission to Mercury.  Find out more about MESSENGER Deputy Project Scientist Louise Prockter and Participating Scientist Catherine Johnson on the Women in Planetary Science website — and find great resources for kids at the MESSENGER Education Site .  Let’s celebrate!


Flying towards Saturn

March 16, 2011

Cassini image of SaturnEver wondered what it would be like to fly into space?  I mean WAY into space? 

Although humans aren’t ready to go back to the Moon or to Mars, we have sent out dozens of spacecraft to the planets and beyond.  Most of the instruments send back data that scientists analyze and tell us what it means.  But on almost every mission, there is also a camera — so that everyone can be part of the experience.  Check out this new video from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft as it heads toward Saturn, just missing cloudy Titan and dry Mimas, two of Saturn’s moons.

Incredible!


We like the moon!

November 4, 2010

We like the moon!  Cause it is close to us….

Elle asked me on twitter this afternoon how to encourage a four year old’s interest in the moon.  Well, some friends and I have a proposal in to NASA to help teach just that.  The product’s not ready yet, but here are some thoughts off the top of my head:

1. Go outside.  That’s right.  Just go outside after dinner with your child, find a quiet spot, and look up.   Talk about what you see.  You don’t need to know the names of the constellations yet, or how to find the north star.  You don’t need to wait for a meteor shower or anything special. Just go outside and enjoy the night sky with your child.

2. Talk to your child about what you see.  As you both get comfortable with the night sky, teach her the phases of the moon (new, crescent, quarter, half, three quarters, waxing, full — and then back down, although waxing “getting larger” becomes waning “getting smaller” on the way back to the new moon, which you can’t see at all).  Ask her, “How big is the moon tonight?”

3. When your child is comfortable with the phases of the moon, and about 4 or 5 years old, graph the phases of the moon and chart the changes.  For little kids, when you come back inside each night, ask him to draw the moon on that day’s space on a calendar.  After a couple weeks, you (and he!) will be able to see how the moon changes over time. 

4. A moon will change through all the phases and return to the phase you saw the first night in about a month.  Figure out why that is so, and then talk about whether you think it’s a coincidence that each month is about one lunar cycle.  (Extra credit: Read stories about what ancient peoples thought about the moon to your child.  Ask your children’s librarian or visit SkyTellers, at the Lunar and Planetary Institute for books and additional activities.)

For a hands-on activity, set up a demonstration of why we see different phases of the moon.  Start with a flashlight, an apple or an orange, and a grape.  The orange is the Earth.  Set it on the table, or let your child hold it.  The flashlight represents the light of the Sun, shining on the Earth.  Set it on the table, shining on the orange.  Now take a grape and move it around in a nearly flat circle around the orange, just as the Moon orbits the Earth.  (Hang tight, we’re almost there.)  Have your child stand next to the orange, and look at the light shining on the grape, from the perspective of the orange.  What does she see? 

Notes for the parent:

  • When the grape is between the flashlight and the orange, no light shines on the surface of the grape that the orange can see.  This is called a “new moon.”
  • As the grape starts in its circle around the orange, the orange can gradually see light shining on the edge of the grape closest to the flashlight.  This is called a “crescent moon.” 
  • At 1/4 of the way around the circle, half of the grape is illuminated, from the orange’s perspective.  This is a “half moon.”
  • As the grape moves toward the halfway point, it is more and more lit up.  We call this process “waxing.”
  • Halfway around the circle, the side of the grape facing the orange is fully illuminated by the flashlight (if you don’t see the light shining on the grape, you may have to hold the grape off the table a little more, to avoid an eclipse!).  This is a “whole moon.”
  • As the grape moves onward from the halfway point, the side facing the orange is less and less lit up.  We call this “waning.”
  • At 3/4 of the way around the circle, half of the grape is illuminated, from the orange’s perspective.  This is a “half moon.”
  • As the grape continues in its circle around the orange, the orange can gradually see light shining on the edge of the grape closest to the flashlight.  This is called a “crescent moon.” 
  • As the grape concludes its orbit around the orange, the orange can see no light shining on the grape, as the grape is between the orange and the flashlight.  See if your child can figure out/remember that this is once again called a “new moon.”

Does that make sense?  If your child is of an age/temperament where holding still is an option, try the demo again with your child as the center of the system (in the Earth’s place) and see if he can see the phases of the moon on the grape (or a small ball) even better — and maybe name the phases himself!

Enjoy the night sky with your child.  The moon is just one of the many wonders of our solar system, but it’s one that is accessible to all, and as close as the end of your driveway.


Visiting Kennedy Space Center

October 30, 2009

My husband and I have always wanted to go to Kennedy Space Center together.

We wanted to go when we were in college.  We wanted to go when we were in graduate school (but by the time we were married and ready to travel, we were writing our dissertations). We wanted to go when we worked for NASA (but we worked for NASA, and were way too busy to vacation. Yes, I know (now) that that’s sad). We wanted to go when we had children (but we had children, and were way too busy still). We wanted to go when a mission I’d worked on launched (but, but, but … and we never went).

A couple of weeks ago, we just went.

Spurred by a question from Ellen, I’m writing up the highlights of our trip, here and on related (linked) posts.

The highlights of our trip to Cocoa Beach in October were many, although not all that varied. We’re space geeks. Period. We love space. And nature. And space again. This trip was a dream come true for us.

The first stop on the Space Coast was the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center. The visitor center is actually run by a professional visitor center company, Delaware Parks & Resorts, and it shows. From the highly organized ticket-buying experience to the metal detectors to the visitor center food, it’s definitely done by someone who knows what they’re doing, and who can manage crowds.

Not that there were crowds when we were there. It was October in Florida, after all, which I can tell you is a great time to go. The crowds are thin, the people were relaxed, and the weather was absolutely gorgeous. (Although the ocean was cold. Not that we spent much time on the beach.)

We enjoyed the KSC Visitor’s Center immensely, running from the Robotic Exploration exhibit to the Constellation movie to the Rocket Garden, with a stop at the giant playspace full of tunnels, bridges, and slides for the younger set. We took a tour (included with visitor’s admission), filed in to a shuttle mockup for a trip to space (kids under 48″ have to watch from a gallery — but even that was exciting), walked on the gantry that the Apollo astronauts walked, explored a full-size shuttle, and stood solemnly at the Astronaut Memorial. We also touched a celestial sphere with the constellations engraved on it, and marveled as it effortlessly spun in the water base at the gentle push of a toddler’s hand.

One of the best parts of the trip was the KSC Then and Now Space History Tour, a three hour tour (not that kind of three hour tour) that took us onto Kennedy Space Center proper and over to Cape Canaveral, where all the Mercury and Gemini rockets were launched back in the 60’s and the unmanned rockets are still launched today. Highlights for us were a visit to an actual bunkhouse, where we got to see and touch the ancient computers that filled the rooms, sit at a control desk, and stand behind the 12-layered glass where Werner Von Braun once stood. We also went to the Apollo 1 launch pad, and solemnly put our hands on the launch structure where the capsule caught fire, burning Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee alive. This was followed by a quiet ride back to KSC, and a stop at the Saturn V center, where one of the last remaining Saturn V rockets is on display.

Included in our trip to KSC was a stop at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, next to the old Space Camp dorms. The Hall of Fame had quite a few other attractions, including hands-on activities and simulators for the kids (that used to belong to Space Camp). This was a fun stop, and although not a whole day’s destination, it was the perfect way to top off Day #2 at KSC. (KSC offers a second day free at the Visitor Center and/or the Astronaut Hall of Fame simply by validating your ticket on exit.)

After the Hall of Fame, we were starving, and dropped by Kelsey’s for pizza. Yum.

Before we left Florida, we happened on another great place to go, this time in Titusville. The U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum is for the true history buff and/or space-crazy child or teen. This unassuming little museum is packed tight with real pieces of history, like the charred I-beam used to advocate for necessary funding increases for the space program back in the 1980’s. The ragged door from a Mercury capsule that was lost before the manned program began. Lights, switches, and memorabilia given to retiring astronauts, engineers, and launch directors. Handprints from dozens of astronauts, that you can lay your hands in for the asking. An amazing room-sized model of the shuttle launch pad, gantry, and crawler. Rooms for Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. A room set up like the bunkhouse that we’d just seen on the tour, but even more child friendly. Scrapbooks of photos kept by men who made the space program what it is today.

We were led through the museum by retired shuttle launch director (whose name I’ve misplaced), who worked his way up through the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and shuttle missions, growing right along with the space program, and it was amazing to hear his stories firsthand. This museum is free, and well worth any time you spend there. Go, shake the hands of the men who made it happen.

The Space Walk of Fame itself is a block or two away, by a beautiful stretch of water, and it is a must-visit. Scattered over the two block area of Space View Park are monuments to the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo engineers, mechanics, flight directors, and all the people who made it happen. Not just the astronauts. Not the astronauts at all, actually, and that was a refreshing change from the astronaut-worship apparent at the KSC Visitor Center. The Space Walk of Fame celebrates hard work. Impossible work, really, and that was a lovely place for us to end our trip.

After a trip to Scoops, for freshly churned ice cream and milkshakes, we played in a nearby park and returned home, tired but happy, our trip complete.

Had we had more time, we would definitely have visited the Brevard Community College Planetarium, which hosts a rooftop observatory with 12 and 24 inch reflectors, a 6 inch refractor, a planetarium with a dual projection system, a 3 story high screened movie theater, and a space museum. The star show is showing Ring World, a favorite of friends of ours … and each show is just $6. We just ran out of time. We’d also like to see the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which friends of ours have loved on their trips there. The Refuge is near the entrance to the Kennedy Space Center, and we’ll definitely make time for that on our next trip.

We can’t wait to go again!

Disclosure: None of the institutions mentioned or NASA paid for any part of this trip in any way at all, nor are they aware of this post. I used to work for NASA, and my husband still does, but I think you knew that already.