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Watch Two Girls Launch a Weather Balloon into the Stratosphere

Space! You can reach it!

Two Seattle girls, aged 10 and 8, decided it would be fun to plan the construction and launch of a weather balloon into space.  They achieved their goal, took a video of the whole process and launch, and have even impressed NASA.

Designed to Rise:

They learned how to create a design for their spacecraft from the web and created a design using materials bought and some from home.  Trial and error changed the design from using PVC pipes to old arrow shafts to keep it light weight.  Overall, the design of the craft resembled a triangle, or pyramid.  They planned for the craft’s landing and even added styrofoam balls in the event of a water landing.  The standard weather balloon they used for the ascent was filled with Helium, and the whole spacecraft was strategically launched from a specific point where they would be most likely to recover the craft upon its return to earth’s surface.

Pop Goes the Weather Balloon:

As the weather balloon traveled further from the Earth’s surface, the air pressure around the balloon decreased drastically. As the air got thinner, the balloon’s casing got tighter. This is due to the gas expanding within the balloon. The expanding gas caused the balloon to reach full capacity and it popped.  This is how weather balloons work, and these girls planned for its popping to initiate the spacecraft’s return to earth.

The girls collected data during the launch.  The Balloon ascended at a very constant rate – an average speed of 35 kilometers/hour. There was a peak speed recorded, of 110 kilometers/hour as the craft left whats called the Tropopause, right before entering the Stratosphere.  They noticed a temperature drop as it got higher up, but then it changed at got higher as the craft left the Troposphere and got into the Stratosphere.

The Earth’s Atmospheric Layers:

The atmosphere is divided into five layers. It is thickest near the surface and thins out with height until it eventually merges with space. The troposphere is the first layer above the surface and contains half of the Earth’s atmosphere. Weather occurs in this layer. Many jet aircrafts fly in the stratosphere because it is very stable. Also, the ozone layer absorbs harmful rays from the Sun. Meteors or rock fragments burn up in the mesosphere. The thermosphere is a layer with auroras. It is also where the space shuttle orbits. The atmosphere merges into space in the extremely thin exosphere. This is the upper limit of our atmosphere.

The girls’ spacecraft’s weather balloon popped at 78,000 feet, or about 15 miles into the atmosphere, which puts into the Stratosphere.

This picture above is the girl’s notes following their successful mission – inspiring! – from GeekWire

The Higher Up, the Lower the Pressure:

Atmospheric pressure is the pressure exerted by the weight of air in the atmosphere of Earth.  In most circumstances atmospheric pressure is measured by the hydrostatic pressure caused by the weight of air above the measurement point. On a given plane, low-pressure areas have less atmospheric mass above their location, whereas high-pressure areas have more atmospheric mass above their location. Likewise, as elevation increases, there is less overlying atmospheric mass, so that atmospheric pressure decreases with increasing elevation.

These girls took all of these factors into consideration when planning their weather balloon spacecraft.  It’s amazing what careful planning, passion, and ingenuity can do, even at a young age.

The girls – Rebecca and Kimberly Yeung – photo by GeekWire

loki-lego-launcher.jpg.653x0_q80_crop-smart thumbnail

Watch Two Girls Launch a Weather Balloon into the Stratosphere

Space! You can reach it!

Two Seattle girls, aged 10 and 8, decided it would be fun to plan the construction and launch of a weather balloon into space.  They achieved their goal, took a video of the whole process and launch, and have even impressed NASA.

Yeung-Sister-Lego-Loki-Launcher-DIY-spacecraft-537x323

Loki-Lego-Launcher-in-space-620x349

Designed to Rise:

They learned how to create a design for their spacecraft from the web and created a design using materials bought and some from home.  Trial and error changed the design from using PVC pipes to old arrow shafts to keep it light weight.  Overall, the design of the craft resembled a triangle, or pyramid.  They planned for the craft’s landing and even added styrofoam balls in the event of a water landing.  The standard weather balloon they used for the ascent was filled with Helium, and the whole spacecraft was strategically launched from a specific point where they would be most likely to recover the craft upon its return to earth’s surface.

Pop Goes the Weather Balloon:

As the weather balloon traveled further from the Earth’s surface, the air pressure around the balloon decreased drastically. As the air got thinner, the balloon’s casing got tighter. This is due to the gas expanding within the balloon. The expanding gas caused the balloon to reach full capacity and it popped.  This is how weather balloons work, and these girls planned for its popping to initiate the spacecraft’s return to earth.

The girls collected data during the launch.  The Balloon ascended at a very constant rate – an average speed of 35 kilometers/hour. There was a peak speed recorded, of 110 kilometers/hour as the craft left whats called the Tropopause, right before entering the Stratosphere.  They noticed a temperature drop as it got higher up, but then it changed at got higher as the craft left the Troposphere and got into the Stratosphere.

The Earth’s Atmospheric Layers:

The atmosphere is divided into five layers. It is thickest near the surface and thins out with height until it eventually merges with space. The troposphere is the first layer above the surface and contains half of the Earth’s atmosphere. Weather occurs in this layer. Many jet aircrafts fly in the stratosphere because it is very stable. Also, the ozone layer absorbs harmful rays from the Sun. Meteors or rock fragments burn up in the mesosphere. The thermosphere is a layer with auroras. It is also where the space shuttle orbits. The atmosphere merges into space in the extremely thin exosphere. This is the upper limit of our atmosphere.

The girls’ spacecraft’s weather balloon popped at 78,000 feet, or about 15 miles into the atmosphere, which puts into the Stratosphere.

This picture above is the girl’s notes following their successful mission – inspiring! – from GeekWire

The Higher Up, the Lower the Pressure:

Atmospheric pressure is the pressure exerted by the weight of air in the atmosphere of Earth.  In most circumstances atmospheric pressure is measured by the hydrostatic pressure caused by the weight of air above the measurement point. On a given plane, low-pressure areas have less atmospheric mass above their location, whereas high-pressure areas have more atmospheric mass above their location. Likewise, as elevation increases, there is less overlying atmospheric mass, so that atmospheric pressure decreases with increasing elevation.

These girls took all of these factors into consideration when planning their weather balloon spacecraft.  It’s amazing what careful planning, passion, and ingenuity can do, even at a young age.

The girls – Rebecca and Kimberly Yeung – photo by GeekWire

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Scientists May Have Discovered an Alien Megastructure…No Seriously.

Scientists believe they may have spotted an Alien Megastructure orbiting a sun in a distant solar system. Not even kidding. There is a massive object orbiting a distant star and a planet or asteroid have already been ruled out as possible explanations. Relax, no one looked into a telescope and spotted the Death Star, but from the sounds of it, this object may be just as massive. Read on as Melissa, our science guru, breaks down the facts.

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Warning: It’s about to get real sciencey up in here. Yeah, Aliens are cool, but you’re going to have to learn a bit about the science we use to find them.

What is Kepler?

The Kepler Space Observatory is a spacecraft launched by NASA in 2009. It provides an opportunity to explore the galaxy for habitable planets.  It does this by observing a fixed location and watching the stars’ brightness.  In time, planets will sometimes orbit those stars, causing a slight dip in the brightness of the observable light.  That dip can be calculated to a certain percentage, and then, based on the size of the star, the size of the planet can be determined.  This is known as transit photometry.

Kepler mission article image

Alien Megastructures, you say?

Recently, a very large dip was discovered on a star named KIC 8462852.  This star is 1500 light years away from earth. Whereas a planet will cause a dip in the light by a percentage or two, this star had a dip of about twenty percent. Twenty percent of the light emitted from this star was blocked by something incredibly large. It would have to be about half the size of the star itself to block twenty percent of the light output. Comparatively, Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, is only one tenth the diameter of our sun. This star is estimated to be 1.5 times larger than the size of our sun, making it nearly impossible for the object to be a planet. Many theories have been explored and there are some very likely natural causes for the dip, yet this mystery has lead some experts to consider this to be the result of a giant alien megastructure, periodically dimming the light with its orbit.

Jason Wright, an astronomer from Penn State University, has been investigating what a huge alien construction in space might look like from Earth. He told The Atlantic: “Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”

Where is the Infrared?

Tabetha Boyajian, Yale University, led the investigations into the mysterious signals and found that the most likely natural cause was the break-up of a comet around the star. As the icy remains expand into giant clouds they could temporarily block out the light, causing the observed signal. But this should cause dust to scatter around the star, producing an excess of infrared radiation that should be easily detected from Earth. As yet, no such signal has been found. One of the main arguments against this alien megastructure theory, is that something as large as this object would be absorbing a lot of heat from the star.  That heat energy would then be re-radiated and observed as Infra-Red wavelengths, and as of now no IR light has been observed from this star.  This lack of Infrared is making it difficult to find the most likely explanation for the dimming event.

Transit Photometry

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Despite the disadvantages of this type of method for discovering exoplanets, the main advantage of the transit method is that the size of the planet can be determined from the lightcurve. When combined with the radial-velocity method (which determines the planet’s mass) one can determine the density of the planet, and learn something about the planet’s physical structure. The transit method also makes it possible to study the atmosphere of the transiting planet. When the planet transits the star, light from the star passes through the upper atmosphere of the planet. By studying the high-resolution stellar spectrum carefully, one can detect elements present in the planet’s atmosphere.

The Plot Thickens

Since the original news hit about the strange observations made about the star KIC 8462852, from the Kepler Space Observatory, astronomers have been busy looking over data and have uncovered some new information.  Bradley Schaefer, an astronomer at Louisiana State University, wanted to investigate this particular star’s dimming pattern further. He went to Harvard to look at old photographic plates of stars. There were more than 1200 photographs of KIC 8462852 to view as part of a survey collected between the years 1890 and 1989. What he found made the mysterious star even more puzzling. He confirmed that the star is flickering on short timescales, similar to the findings of the Kepler Space Observatory, but the Harvard collection also revealed that its been doing this over the course of a century.

What does this mean for the initial hypothesis?  Could the break-up of comets, orbiting around the star be the answer? Schaefer calculated that it would take 648,000 stars, each 200 km wide to have passed by the star, which he was was “completely implausible.” (New Scientist)

The results also changed the requirements for the alien megastructure hypothesis. Schaefer is unconvinced that an Alien civilization would be able to build something capable of covering a fifth of a star that massive in just a century. He also reiterated the lack of infrared signal that would be required for such a structure.  

Schafer added in his report that a century-long dimming like the one from the star, is completely unprecedented for any star of its size. He adds, the “century-long dimming and the day-long dips are both just extreme ends of a spectrum of timescales for unique dimming events, so by Ockham’s Razor, all this is produced by one physical mechanism.  This mechanism…must be some ongoing process with continuous effects.”  (Cornell)

Ockham’s Razor is a problem solving principle with philosophical origins.  It basically states that the simplest explanation for something is usually the right one.  Well, nothing stands out as the obvious reason for this phenomenon yet, other than the confirmation that it’s the same thing that’s caused it for over a century.  Pretty awesome even if it’s still a mystery.

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Life on Mars: How Close Are We?

It’s quite likely that right now in some classroom, there is a student who will one day travel to Mars… 

Is There Life On Mars?

Could humans live on Mars? Is there life there already? Since David Bowie posed these questions, our quest to answer them has gained momentum. Breakthroughs in astrophysics and other sciences have furthered the bounds of our ability to understand and travel through space.

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Astronauts of the Future

It’s quite likely that right now in some classroom, there is a student who will one day travel to Mars, and in knowing such, the ability to understand space travel and the planet Mars for our future has become the focus of many organizations and companies. Programs to pique students interests have multiplied.

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Bus Ride on Mars

One such program is The Mars Experience developed as a part of Lockhead Martin’s Generation Beyond initiative. This program makes the passengers of a school bus feel like they’re on Mars. Now for some, the summer months can already make an ordinary school bus feel as hot and dry as the planet Mars, but in the program they have transformed a normal school bus into a virtual Martian Tourbus; its windows replaced by high definition displays that show 200 square miles of the Martian landscape with perfect scientific accuracy. The images are shown in real time with the most advanced virtual reality software available to create the illusion of driving across the surface of Mars. This program and others like it will hopefully help to inspire today’s youth to learn and work towards making this virtual reality into an actual reality.

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How Long Could You Last on Mars?

The film “The Martian” takes place in the not-so-distant future where programs like similar to The Mars Experience have succeeded, where NASA has excelled and advanced its space program and has developed manned missions to Mars. Of course, it the missions are still full of faults and errors, as unexpected and unanticipated events force Matt Damon to stretch the limits of his ingenuity to succeed and survive. He is able to grow food on Mars by finding new uses for what little materials and resources he has. In the film a human being is able to live on Mars (with a little help of futuristic sci-fi devices) but it is not easy. In this lesson you’ll ask yourself how long you could last on Mars.

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Breakthrough Starshot: Exploring the Infinite Abyss



Stephen Hawking - 4/12/16

Stephen Hawking is a cosmologist, professor, theoretical physicist and one of the greatest living scientific legends.  He, along with Yuri Milner, an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and physicist, as well as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame, announced the Breakthrough Starshot initiative in April of 2016.

According to the website, Breakthrough Starshot is a “$100 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for a new technology, enabling ultra-light unmanned space flight at 20% of the speed of light; and to lay the foundations for a flyby mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.”

Let’s break this down to understand what manner of science fiction we’re dealing with here.

 

Alpha Centauri

Alpha Centauri is our neighboring star system that is located four light years away. With current rocket propulsion technology – our current abilities to drive or push a rocket forward – it would take hundreds of millennia to reach it.

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The Speed of Light

In the past fifteen years, fast technological advances have opened up the possibility of light-powered space travel at a significant fraction of light speed.  The speed of light is 671 million miles per hour. According to the statement from Breakthrough Starshot, the program would push miniature space probes to speeds up to 100 million miles per hour, roughly 20% the speed of light.

The program would include a light beamer – basically a number of high powered lasers – located on earth, that would push nanocrafts to their top speeds.

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Nanocrafts you say?

These are gram-scale robotic spacecrafts comprising two main parts:  

  • A “StarChip”, which is a wafer sized component carrying cameras, photon thrusters, power supply, navigation and communication equipment, and constituting a fully functional space probe.
  • The “LightSail” is a meter-scale sail that is no more than a few hundred atoms thick and at gram-scale mass.

So, you could picture little wafer sized components surrounded by what look like sails, that lasers from earth push to speeds of 100 million miles per hour.  Crazy, right?

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Moore’s Law

The scientists explain that a few technological advances are making this invention possible.  First is the idea of Moore’s Law, which is the observation made by Gordon E. Moore in 1975, that explains that the number of transistors in dense integrated circuits will double approximately every two years. Basically, technology will only get smaller.  We’ve seen evidence of this over the decades and this observation has proved true every two years up to about 2013.  Its still a viable prediction for scientists to work with, but the rate at at which technology is advancing is indeed slowing down. Not dramatically, but it may perhaps change to every 3 or 4 years that we see a shift in scale of technological advances.  

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Nanotechnology

The second advancement in technology that is making nanocrafts a possibility are the advances in nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nano-scale, which is about 1 to 100 nano-meters. Nano-science and nanotechnology are the study and application of extremely small things and can be used across all the other science fields, such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering. These advances are becoming more and more a reality.

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Interstellar Space

Once the nanocrafts reach Alpha Centauri in a few decades, they would then beam home images of possible planets and analysis of magnetic fields. Along its journey, the nanocrafts could supply worlds of information about asteroids it crosses and solar system exploration. While Breakthrough Starshot is not the first project to explore the idea of interstellar space travel, it far outweighs any previous attempt in terms of funding. In 2011 the US research agency DARPA and NASA provided $500,000 to seed the “100 Year Starship Project”. That doesn’t quite compare with the $10 million that has been allocated to Breakthrough Starshot.

 

Path to the stars

The research and engineering phase is expected to last a number of years. Following that, development of the ultimate mission to Alpha Centauri would require a budget comparable to the largest current scientific experiments. Once it is assembled and the technology matures, the cost of each launch is projected to fall to a few hundred thousand dollars.

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I’m in, so when do we get the popcorn ready?

One of the great things about this initiative, aside from actually reaching interstellar space with a camera ready to send images to earth, is how the very development of this program is inviting the public to chime in with opinions and suggestions.  The team is essentially crowd-sourcing solutions to the number of engineering and logistical challenges that remain before this is a reality.  Transparency is important to the Breakthrough Starshot team, which is a great move, in my opinion. In about 25 years, we can finally microwave that popcorn as we await images of possible earth like planets from Alpha Centauri.