Blog

Speedy Experiment – Lemon Volcano20/08/2020

I can’t say I’m a big fan of lemons. They’re just like oranges, but a more boring colour and with a horrible taste. But, like them or hate them, with a few simple ingredients, you can turn them into a lemon volcano! You don’t need time or a laboratory for this one; like the tremendous teabag rocket, the test takes less than ten minutes. Furthermore, it uses entirely household materials, so won’t harm the environment!

You will need:

  • A lemon – mine was quite an old one, which was good as it stopped me from wasting food.
  • A spoon
  • A knife (get a grown-up’s help for this one!)
  • Bicarbonate of Soda
  • A spare container; the second ramekin (little dish) in my photograph has a dash of washing-up liquid under the recommendation of another experimenter; however, I found that I didn’t need this.

The method:

1) Cut the two ends off of the lemon with the knife.

2) Use the spoon to core out some of the middle.

This should make a “bowl” shape like the image above.

3) Squeeze out the lemon juice from the lemon-ends into the spare container.

4) Add some bicarbonate of soda to your lemon-bowl.

The lemon juice will react with the soda and create an eruption. If your reaction is underwhelming, add a little of your spare lemon juice…

If you like, try testing the lemon volcano method with other citrus fruit. Does it work with lime? Orange? Grapefruit?

The science:

Bicarbonate of soda contains carbon – it’s in the name (bicarbonate) . When the citric acid in lemon juice reacts with the soda, those carbon dixoide atoms gain two oxygen atom companions each, and become carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a gas, so that creates bubbles in the juice-and-soda – and because quite a lot of it is being produced, the lemon seems to erupt!

Speedy Experiment – Alien Goo05/08/2020

Alien goo. What is it? Why do aliens use it? When did aliens discover it? I can’t answer any of those questions, because as far as we know, alien goo doesn’t exist. But I can tell you how to make something a lot like it! This goo will magically change form before your very eyes. You don’t need time or a laboratory for this one; like the tremendous teabag rocket, the test takes less than ten minutes. Furthermore, it uses entirely household materials, so won’t harm the environment!

WARNING: This is an extremely messy experiment, especially if there are any excited children involved. Make sure you’re wearing clothes you don’t mind getting stained!

The alien goo ingredients:

  • Some water
  • As much cornflour or cornstarch as you can acquire
  • Some food colouring – I used orange.
  • A bowl
  • A measuring jug
  • Some newspaper to cover any surfaces

The alien goo method:

1) Measure out some water – perhaps 100ml – and pour that into the bowl.

2) Dry the jug, then add four times that amount in cornflour to the water.

The image below shows a mix with far too little cornflour. The original blueprint I uncovered from the crashed spaceship recipe I found specified a ratio of one part water to two parts cornflour; I’d recommend at least four parts cornflour. You can always add more water to balance it out.

3) Add seven or eight drops of food colouring.

4) Mix it all together and let if flow!

“Alien goo” is… strange. You can pick it up like a solid, roll it up into balls and shapes, but the moment you suspend it in the air, it seems to “melt” like a liquid.

 

Be warned – siblings seek this stuff out like they can smell it. Perhaps they’re aliens too…

The alien goo science:

This “alien goo” is a “non-Newtonian fluid”. Isaac Newton, who calculated loads about gravity, made a “law”  – that’s a prediction about physics – that liquids will always behave in a certain way. But, naturally, we’ve discovered more since he lived 400 years ago. One of the things we’ve discovered is liquids that don’t follow that law he made – alien goo being one of them. And because they don’t do what Newton said, they’re non-Newton-ian fluids!

See Saturn (CosWatch Blog 8)24/07/2020

Welcome to the eighth of Fun Science‘s CosWatch blog posts, which you can read through with your young scientist and learn how to see Saturn.

What is CosWatch?

There’s so much to see in the night sky! You may have seen Brian Cox on TV describing the “wonders of the universe”, or Carl Sagan talking about the “awesome machinery of nature”, and they’re absolutely right. But while huge rockets and observatories can help, space isn’t just for people with expensive equipment. You can see amazing things from millions of miles away from your very own back garden. Each week, I’m going to talk about one of these incredible objects, and how you can find them.

This beautiful footage from Voyager 2 is a timelapse showing the probe’s approach to the Saturn.

This time, we’re going to be talking about how to see Saturn, the second-largest planet in the Solar System!

Tell me about Saturn

Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun, and takes 29 years to orbit it. This makes sense; it’s further (and therefore has a greater distance to travel) than Jupiter, which takes 12 years, and much closer than Uranus, which takes 84 years. Like those two planets, it is a gas giant, meaning it is mostly made of gas. Also like those two, it has a short day of only ten hours and forty-two minutes.

“Saturn as seen from Mimas” by Chesley Bonestell is credited by some as inspiring the post-war appetite for space that fuelled the race to get the moon.

Saturn is most famous for its colossal rings. These rings aren’t solid objects as they may appear, but a collection of lots of tiny bits of ice, and a small amount of rocky material. These ice-lumps range from the scale of microns (smaller than a human hair) to metres (bigger than a car).

This image from NASA allows us to see Saturn in transit – that is to say, passing in front of the sun. This helps illustrate the size and majesty of its rings.

The Moons of Saturn

Some kids get all of the toys. As well as the biggest rings, Saturn has 82 moons, the most of any planet in our solar system. We discover them so quickly, only around 50 of them have names!

The most famous of these moons is Titan. Titan is a very exciting moon; much larger than ours, it’s the only other place in the solar system where we’ve found still bodies of liquid, which may be necessary for life. We’ve also landed a probe on its surface; the image to the right is really from the ground of Titan itself!

On the right, Titan from space. On the left, Titan from its surface.

There are of course many other moons of note. Pan, for instance, is shaped like a sherbert UFO sweetie. Methone, meanwhile, is shaped like a pebble.

On the left, the pebble shaped Methone. On the right, the sweetie-shaped Pan. Both from NASA.

Saturn has been observed since prehistoric times, and represents many different Gods in many different mythologies.

However, its rings and moons weren’t known about until much later. Galileo, who discovered four of Jupiter’s moons, observed Saturn in 1610. He thought the rings were two moons on either side of Saturn, and described them as “Saturn’s ears”; based on this sketch he drew, it’s easy to see why!

Phineas L. MacGuire Series | Book awards, Saturn, Children's books

How can I see Saturn?

As said, Saturn has been observed since ancient times, which means that it can easily be seen with the naked eye. Most modern telescopes will easily highlight the rings; if you’re lucky, you’ll see some moons too. You can buy special filters to observe more detail, but these aren’t necessary.

As ever, the website timeanddate.com is very helpful for this – using their “night sky” function, you can choose your location and planet, then simply test visibility for each of the nights. Currently, Saturn is hanging around “with” Jupiter in the South – though of course they’re over a billion miles apart in real life.

Saturn has inspired art, religion and scientific discovery for thousands of years, and will pretty much always be visible. I hope you enjoy observing it!

In conclusion:

  • Saturn is the magnificent sixth planet from the Sun, and the second gas giant.
  • It has huge rings made of tiny pieces of ice (and a little rock), and over 80 moons.
  • We have landed a probe on the surface of Titan, the largest of those moons.
  • Saturn has been observed since ancient times, but we only worked out it had rings about 400 years ago.
  • You can easily see Saturn with the naked eye, and its rings and moons with a telescope.

What’s next for CosWatch?

This is the last of the CosWatch blogs for now, but who knows what’s in store for the future? I hope you’ve been able to learn some interesting facts, and perhaps see some of these beautiful objects for yourself. I’ve been Electron Edward, and it has been a pleasure to share the delights of the cosmos with you.

Notes:

Fun Science recently created a “Planets and Space” home kit, pre-orderable now for only £5.00. Check it out here!

In this article I explain that a further a planet is from the Sun, the longer it takes, generally, to orbit it. This is briefly touching on Kepler’s laws of planetary motion; however, this is fairly complex maths, and you don’t need to focus on this until at least year 12.

Younger scientists, or older ones with good taste, may want to check out The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System in the (sadly late) Joanna Cole’s Magic School Bus series to help them remember and learn about the different planets – though note that this book has Pluto classified as a planet, which is of course out of date..

11 reasons we haven’t found aliens22/07/2020

It’s one of the first big questions someone learning about space, especially a young scientist, will ask: Why haven’t aliens visited?

This article contains a lot of speculation based on the ideas of leading scientists. At any time, we could discover a new scientific fact or idea that will completely change the whole way we think about the cosmos. However, this is a summary of the most popular ideas so far.

Why do we think aliens would exist?

This is a good starting question. The reason many scientists think aliens – that is to say, life like the animals on Earth, but on other planets – must exist is because of probability. Even if they’re extremely rare, the universe is so big, and there are so many planets like the Earth, that it seems reasonable to assume that extra-terrestrial (alien) life will have evolved somewhere. In fact, if the universe is infinite, then they must have!

Aliens may have evolved like animals – alive and complex, but not advanced enough to try contacting our planet. When we talk about aliens that we think are like us, we describe them as “intelligent life”.

We don’t think aliens exist in our solar system – we’ve explored our planets quite closely, and haven’t found a shred of evidence. While it’s possible we may discover something unexpected, most scientists work off of the assumption that we need to look elsewhere for our neighbours.

How would intelligent life contact us?

There are a number of ways that aliens might get in touch with the human race. They could visit Earth in spaceships, much like in movies.

Or, if they’re anything like us, they might send space probes, just as we have sent rovers to Mars or satellites to Jupiter and Saturn. There are a couple of types they might use. A “Von Neumann” probe uses resources it finds to replicate itself – in a few years you might have a whole flock of them reproducing across a solar system. A “Bracewell” probe, meanwhile, is sent out into space and designed to talk to aliens on behalf of whoever designed it.

The Voyager 2 probe from Earth took forty years to leave our solar system; it’s a long way from discovering any new worlds yet.

Alternatively, they may try to get in touch by sending radio signals. The important thing to remember is that space is big; even if aliens orbited the closest star to us, and travelled at the fastest speed allowed by physics, it would still take them four years to reach us.

For that reason, they may try to send us a radio signal instead. An alien civilization wouldn’t really be able to gain anything from sending us a radio signal. It’s just a way to say “hello!” to us from a huge distance. They may try to describe themselves, or share some of their knowledge or history, depending how complex the signal is.

The “Very Large Array” in New Mexico.

The organisation SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) exists for this reason. They listen out for signals from space using huge satellite dishes. Occasionally, they send out signals from Earth too – us saying “hello!” to anyone who might be listening. We haven’t heard anything yet, but who knows what the future may bring?

The Fermi Paradox, and its solutions:

Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi pointed this out in the 1950s. There are half a trillion stars in our galaxy alone, and billions of galaxies with similar numbers of stars throughout the universe. Many of these stars have planets that would be suitable for aliens to live on; water, a good temperature, a similar size, and so on. So why haven’t they got in touch?

There are a number of possible solutions that have been put forward over the years:

They might not be clever enough

It may be the case that even though alien animals evolve in many places, none become intelligent enough to build things like radio telescopes; or even if they have, they simply haven’t thought of the idea yet.

Alternatively, we might not be clever enough. After all, we’re assuming that aliens will try to contact us using radio signals. However, they might have discovered a new way to communicate across the universe – and assume we’re using that too.

They might not be loud enough

The reason we think we should be able to hear alien civilizations is because we use radio signals, which leak out into space. We think they probably use the same. However, as a species, we have been moving towards other, “less leaky” ways of talking to each other, such as fibre optic cables. Perhaps aliens have been doing the same, so very little noise is coming from them; imagine trying to work out what song someone was listening to if they were using headphones across the street.

They might not have enough resources

There are many times when we have discovered a new barrier to exploration of space – for instance, the speed of light. It may be that we have simply underestimated the amount of material it takes to effectively get in touch with another world, a bit like not having enough credit on your phone to call your parents.

Theoretical models for launching Von Neumann probes involve mining Mercury, shown in this image from Space.com, for resources. Perhaps alien civilizations don’t have planets like Mercury at their disposal.

They might have been destroyed by natural disaster

The human race is bombarded by floods, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes every day. It’s possible that aliens have been wiped out by natural disaster – or even destroyed by a meteor, like the dinosaurs.

They might have been destroyed by themselves

Nuclear war, demonstrated in this image by a mushroom cloud, is one of the more dramatic events that might lead to a species’ extinction.

Some thinkers have proposed that aliens might be doomed to destroy themselves when they reach a certain level of advancement; and with climate change, nuclear weapons, and discrimination on our own planet, you can see why. Don’t panic, though – it’s equally possible that that isn’t true, and that alien species live for an extremely long time!

They might live underwater

Despite so much of our planet being water, our planet’s 32% landmass could theoretically be unusually large. Perhaps on other planets, it’s usual for more or less the entire surface to be covered in water, and aliens haven’t developed features that suit space travel, such as hands and large brains.

Alternatively, perhaps alien intelligent mostly occupies subsurface oceans, such as those theorised to exist under the icy surface of Europa. Radio signals would struggle to escape these surfaces, and civilizations would effectively be invisible. They would, however, be largely protected from impacts and stellar radiation.

Jupiter’s moon Europa is theorised to have subsurface oceans. Though we’re sure that life like ours doesn’t exist there, it’s possible single-celled organisms or even small animals have managed to evolve under the protection of the ice!

They might live on too big a planet

It’s already difficult to accumulate enough power to get off of Earth. If aliens live on a bigger planet, they might not be able to escape its larger gravity. That wouldn’t prevent them from sending radio signals, but it would mean they couldn’t travel in a spaceship or send a space probe.

They might have deliberately left us alone

The “zoo hypothesis” is the idea that aliens have left us alone on purpose. It’s like how when people explore other countries, they are asked to leave the animals alone, and not interfere in their ecosystems. However, it would only take one species of many to change their mind for this to break down, so this seems unlikely.

They might just not want to meet us

We assume that because we want to contact aliens, they’ll want to contact us. But perhaps they don’t like other planets as part of their culture. Perhaps they don’t want to colonize or explore elsewhere in the way that we do. Perhaps they don’t even have scientific curiosity.

We might be too young

We’ve only been broadcasting radio signals since the very end of the 1800s. We might not have made enough of an impact on the universe to be detected yet; we’ve done the cosmic equivalent of clearing out throats before the speech begins.

We might be extremely rare

This is Professor Brian Cox’s theory, and one I find convincing. The process of evolution is extremely complex, and to some extent relies on chance. For that reason, intelligent life developing in the way we did may be extremely unlikely; perhaps as little as one-per-galaxy. While there may be the slim chance of picking up on communication from them, we’d never be able to visit due to the literally astronomical distances involved – it would take many millions of years at the very least.

So which is the answer?

All of the ideas here necessarily make a huge number of assumptions about the way an aliens species would communicate, operate, and evolve. With no evidence available to tell us about aliens or their absence, we cannot be sure why we haven’t met aliens yet. If they don’t exist, that’s a reminder how special life on Earth is. If they do, it would be extremely exciting to communicate with them and perhaps learn more about the cosmos.

Either way, the very idea of aliens means that we should always try to keep learning, whether to protect our own species or discover new ones.

Speedy experiment – nervous coins22/07/2020

Your pocket money is alive! Well, sort of. Well, not really. But your coins will certainly seem alive after this experiment. You don’t need time or a laboratory for this one; like the tremendous teabag rocket, the test takes less than ten minutes. Furthermore, it uses entirely household materials, so won’t harm the environment!

You will need:

  • An old bottle – I used an old wine bottle; if your parents don’t have one of those about, you can use any any tall glass container
  • Coins – I tested two, but aim for multiple sizes (as long as one is large enough to cover the mouth of the bottle)
  • Some water
  • Access to a freezer

The method:

1) Remove the bottle cap, and place the empty bottle in the freezer.

2) While you’re waiting (at least five minutes), immerse your coins in water.

3) Remove the bottle from the freezer, and place one of the coins on top.

The coin should jump around and make strange clicking noises, like some sort of especially nervous robot. Try testing with other sizes of coin. Does it work if the coin doesn’t cover the entirety of the hole? What about with different coin materials? Do you have any coins from other countries that you could test?

The science:

As the helpful diagram below shows us, hot air rises.

Warm-Up: Why does hot air rise and cold air fall downward ...

On top of that, it also takes up a larger volume of space than cool air. This means that if you put cool air inside a container – for example, a recycled bottle – it will try to escape as it warms up.

When you take the uncapped bottle out of the freezer, the air inside the bottle begins to warm up, rising and expanding. The coin on top moves simply because the new larger air is pushing past it.

So, no, as far as we know, coins aren’t sentient. But they can jump about when air warms up behind them, and that is very fun to watch.

The BIG EXPERIMENT results!14/07/2020

You dunked. And you dunked. And you dunked, and dunked, and dunked…

In our big experiment, we asked young scientists and their parents across the country to dunk three types of branded biscuit. With this data, we’ve been able to work out which is the most dunkable. But who was the winner? Let’s take a look…

See NEOWISE (CosWatch Blog 7)13/07/2020

Welcome to the seventh of Fun Science‘s CosWatch blog posts, which you can read through with your young scientist and learn how to see the comet NEOWISE.

This comet is visible for about the next week, but then will be absent for thousands of years. Unless you’re immortal or a ghost, don’t delay!

What is CosWatch?

There’s so much to see in the night sky! You may have seen Brian Cox on TV describing the “wonders of the universe”, or Carl Sagan talking about the “awesome machinery of nature”, and they’re absolutely right. But while huge rockets and observatories can help, space isn’t just for people with expensive equipment. You can see amazing things from millions of miles away from your very own back garden. Each week, I’m going to talk about one of these incredible objects, and how you can find them.

This time, we’re going to be talking about how to see NEOWISE, a comet visible this month!

Tell me about NEOWISE

Comets are balls of ice that move around the solar system, which is why they’re sometimes referred to as “dirty snowballs”. NEOWISE is one of these comets.

Comets move around in strange oval orbits. When they move close to the Sun, they begin to melt, and large amounts of their ice are torn off in the form of bright gasses. This is why they have long tails.

This image from Wells & Mendip Astronomers shows us NEOWISE’s tail.

NEOWISE has a strange name because it was discovered by the NEOWISE space probe. The “WISE” stands for “Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer”, while the “NEO” stands for “Near-Earth Object.”

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/94/WISE_artist_concept_%28PIA17254%2C_crop%29.jpg/1280px-WISE_artist_concept_%28PIA17254%2C_crop%29.jpg

The probe in question. This is just concept art, but gives us a good idea of what the probe looks like in space.

Where do comets come from?

There are two types of comet – “short period” comets, that orbit the Sun in less than 200 years, and “long period” comets, that take much longer than that – sometimes many thousands of years.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/10/C_2020_F3_NEOWISE.jpg/800px-C_2020_F3_NEOWISE.jpg

As this diagram demonstrates, NEOWISE is a long period comet; it takes about 4500 years to reach us, and another 6800 to get back to where it started from.

Short period comets are thought to originate from the “Kupier Belt”, a ring of asteroids past Neptune. Long period comets probably come from the “Oort Cloud”, a great cloud of gas and rock that surrounds the Solar System.

https://space-facts.com/wp-content/uploads/oort-cloud.png

A diagram by Lorine Moreau showing the incredible size of the Oort Cloud – you can also see the Kupier Belt.

We have tried to land some space probes on comets, ocassionally successfully. However, because of the relatively small sizes (often about that of a city) and extremely high speeds involved, mistakes do occur. A lander from the Rosetta spacecraft managed to reach a comet, but unfortunately bounced underneath a cliff; this meant that its solar panels were uesless, and the batteries ran out before many results could be acquired.

How can I see NEOWISE?

NEOWISE will be very, very difficult to see after the 19th, and will disappear soon afterwards. There’s also the risk of it breaking up into pieces too small to see at any point. Don’t delay! Make plans!

I managed to see NEOWISE at 3:15am on the 12th. Yes, unfortunately this CosWatch will involve some early morning rising or late nights – but for such a rare spectacle, isn’t it worth it?

https://cdn.discordapp.com/attachments/698261768455061535/731684347039580170/unknown.png

This photograph was taken by my good friend James in London, and should give you some idea of what you’ll be seeing.

Some people have reported seeing NEOWISE as early as 11:30pm, but for security’s sake, 3am – before it starts to get dark – is your best option. Find somewhere with a clear view of the North-East horizon. It should be fairly difficult to miss, but if you’re having trouble finding it, locate the star Capella using the internet or star charts, then look further down.

NEOWISE is visible with the naked eye, but in areas with considerable light pollution, it’d be worth using a binoculars or a telescope; unlike shooting stars, comet, though extremely fast, look like they’re moving very slowly aross the sky, and are easy to focus on as a result.

In conclusion:

  • NEOWISE is a comet visible for the next week or so.
  • It is a “long period” comet, meaning it takes thousands of years to move around the solar system.
  • It probably originated in the Oort Cloud.
  • Its tail is simply ice melting as the comet approaches the Sun.
  • You can see NEOWISE easily – but not for long!

What’s next on CosWatch?

Next time, I’ll be talking about Saturn, the iconic ringed gas giant. Have fun observing NEOWISE!

Notes:

Fun Science recently created a “Planets and Space” home kit, pre-orderable now for only £5.00. Check it out here!

See Andromeda (CosWatch Blog 6)10/07/2020

Welcome to the sixth of Fun Science‘s CosWatch blog posts, which you can read through with your young scientist and learn how to see Andromeda, our galactic next-door neighbour.

What is CosWatch?

There’s so much to see in the night sky! You may have seen Brian Cox on TV describing the “wonders of the universe”, or Carl Sagan talking about the “awesome machinery of nature”, and they’re absolutely right. But while huge rockets and observatories can help, space isn’t just for people with expensive equipment. You can see amazing things from millions of miles away from your very own back garden. Each week, I’m going to talk about one of these incredible objects, and how you can find them.

Today we look for Andromeda, a place far distant from any of our other CosWatch blog focusses.

APOD provides us with this ethereal picture of Andromeda.

What is Andromeda?

We live in a galaxy – a collection of stars, usually in a disk shape – called the Milky Way. Andromeda is simply another such galaxy.

Though perhaps the most well-known galaxy other than our own, the Andromeda galaxy isn’t technically the closest; this is because the Milky Way and Andromeda both have “satellite” galaxies, a bit like the moons of a planet. It is, however, the largest galaxy in a big nest of galaxies of which we are a member; this is called the “local group”.

Andromeda is sometimes called “M31”. This means it is the 31st entry in something called the “Messier catalogue”. This is a list started by French Astronomer Charles Messier of fuzzy, difficult-to-identify objects in the night sky, including nebulae and star clusters. Andromeda’s satellites have similiar entries in the catalogue – M32, for instance.

The past and the future

Despite being larger, Andromeda is more like our galaxy’s little brother than older sister; it is ten billion years old, some three billion years younger than the Milky Way. It was formed from the collision of several protogalaxies, which you can think of as galaxy babies.

Andromeda was first recorded as being observed by human beings in 964 AD. However, it and other spiral galaxies were thought to be nebulae into the 1900s. There was a great debate by two scientists as to whether these “spiral nebulae” were just nebulae or “island universes”. It was settled when Edwin Hubble observed a flashing star, which he was able to use to measure the distance to Andromeda. It became quickly apparent that this object was further away than anything else we had observed, and was probably another galaxy.

An article by Ella Alderson provides this demonstration of a galactic collision.

The Milky Way and Andromeda are heading towards each other at over 68 miles a second – incredibly fast from our perspective, but for objects as big as galaxies, really rather slow. In about 4.5 billion years – when Earth will be twice as old – they will collide and combine into one galaxy, dubbed “Milkdromeda”. This may result in the solar system being ejected from the galaxies. Don’t panic, though; humans as we know them will be long-gone, and any still-existing lifeforms will probably be alright, as Earth will still orbit the Sun.

Visiting Andromeda

Since it was discovered to be another galaxy, Andromeda has featured in many science fiction stories. It is the main setting for the game Mass Effect: Andromeda, as well as the film Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s also the setting of Andromeda, a series by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

The game map of Mass Effect: Andromeda. The various locations of this game are no match to the actual population of Andromeda, which is estimated to have something like a trillion stars!

Unfortunately, in real life, we probably can’t visit Andromeda. The laws of physics seem to say that we can only travel as fast as the speed of light; even if we did manage to match light with a probe or space ship, it would still take us 2.537 million years to reach the place. Fortunately, there’s plenty we can learn about it from simply observing it in the sky.

How can I see Andromeda?

The Andromeda galaxy is the only galaxy visible with the naked eye, albeit on moonless nights; despite being so far away, the brightness of its collected stars makes it very powerful. It forms part of the conveniently named Andromeda constellation.

To find it in the night sky, you need to find the “Mirach” nearby; think of it like using a sign post to choose the right lane on the motorway.

This diagram from WikiHow eloquently demonstrates how to find Mirach (and thus Andromeda) between the Cassiopeia and Pegasus constellations.

Fortunately, Mirach doesn’t move erratically in the way the planets do (there’s a reason “planet” is Greek for “wanderer”), so you should always be able to find it in this spot. Just use a star chart (or website like timeanddate.com) to work out when those constellations will be visible in your area, and you’ll be set!

There are some benefits to observing Andromeda with a telescope. You may be able to see some of Andromeda’s twenty dwarf satellite galaxies. The image below was taken in 1899; imagine what you could do from your own garden with a whole century of technology on top!

In conclusion:

  • Andromeda is another galaxy, bigger than the Milky Way but younger.
  • It is the largest galaxy in our galactic “local group”.
  • Sometimes people call it “M31” because it is part of a record of space things called the “Messier catalogue”.
  • It has been observed since the 900s but was only determined to be another galaxy in the 20th century.
  • It will collide with the Milky Way in several billion years.
  • We probably can’t visit it, but we can certainly learn lots about it from observation.
  • It can be seen with the naked eye near the Cassiopeia and Pegasus nebulae.
  • Telescopes can reveal smaller galaxies next to it.

What’s next on CosWatch?

Next time, we’ll look at Comet NEOWISE, a rare Astronomical opportunity this month. Don’t miss it!

Notes:

Fun Science recently created a “Planets and Space” home kit, available now for only £5.00. Check it out here!

If your young scientist is interested, they may like to hear about blue-shifting. Because Andromeda is heading towards us, its light waves are being compressed, which makes them bluer; if it was moving away, they would be being stretched, making it appear redder. It’s quite well-explained in this gif shared on the Fun Science Twitter page.

See Uranus (CosWatch Blog 5)01/07/2020

Welcome to the second of Fun Science‘s CosWatch blog posts, which you can read through with your young scientist and learn how to see Uranus.

What is CosWatch?

There’s so much to see in the night sky! You may have seen Brian Cox on TV describing the “wonders of the universe”, or Carl Sagan talking about the “awesome machinery of nature”, and they’re absolutely right. But while huge rockets and observatories can help, space isn’t just for people with expensive equipment. You can see amazing things from millions of miles away from your very own back garden. Each week, I’m going to talk about one of these incredible objects, and how you can find them.

This beautiful shot from Voyager 2 captures Uranus’ colour… but that might be the least interesting thing about this mind-blowing planet.

This time, we’re going to be talking about how to see Uranus, the second-to-last planet in the solar system!

Tell me about Uranus

Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun, and takes a staggering eighty-four years to go around it; for every “month” of Uranus’ year, seven years have passed on Earth! Like Jupiter, it is a gas giant, meaning  it is mostly made of gas. Also like Jupiter, it has a short day of only seventeen hours and fourteen minutes.

I love this art by Stefan Blaser, which shows us how an astronaut would see Uranus from the surface of its moon Umbriel.

There’s something absolutely fascinating about Uranus which makes it totally unique. If you look at art of photos which show Uranus’ rings, you’ll notice they seem to be upright, rather than sideways. There’s a delightful reason for this – the entire planet is sideways! Nobody is quite sure why Uranus is this way.  Research suggests that when the Solar System was forming, the early Uranus was hit by an object larger than Earth, which pushed it over.

Uranus: The Ringed Planet That Sits on its Side | Space

This more distant image of Uranus demonstrates its tilted axis, and some of its moons.

Uranus has at least 27 known moons, mostly named after Shakespearean characters such as Ophelia, Cressida, Margaret and Puck.

Discovery and name

Uranus is even more distant than the first six planets. It wasn’t even identified as a planet in ancient astronomy, only as a star. That changed in 1781, when William Herschel discovered it – from the city of Bath, no less. Not only that, but its orbit helped Astronomers realise that there must be an eighth planet – Neptune was discovered sixty years later!

William Herschel working at his telescope, from which he’ll see Uranus. His sister Caroline would go on to make many discoveries of her own.

Astronomers didn’t agree on a name for almost seventy years. Rather than continuing the trend of naming the planets after Greek/Roman Gods, Herschel wanted to name the planet “George’s Star”, or Georgium Sidus, after his King. People from other countries didn’t want a planet named after an English King, and called it other names. One of the more popular names was Herschel, after its discoverer.

Unfortunately for Herschel (but fortunately for people who like good names for planets), Astronomers eventually settled on “Uranus”, after the Greek god Ouranos. Now, many people mock Uranus’ name because “anus” is another word for bottom, but most agree it’s a better name than George’s Star.

How can I see Uranus?

Uranus is more difficult to see than the more well-known first six planets, which is why it wasn’t recognised by astronomers for so long. It can be seen with the naked eye on a moonless night, but you’re better off setting up a telescope or binoculars. It will appear as a blue-green smudge; if you’re lucky, you’ll see some moons too. You can buy special filters to make it more visible, but these aren’t necessary.

Uranus will spend all of 2020 “in” the constellation of Aries the ram. It’s being shy at the moment, spending a lot of time hiding under the horizon where you won’t be able to spot it. I like the website timeanddate.com for this – using their “night sky” function, you can choose your location and planet, then simply test visibility for each of the nights.

Sadly, Uranus has chosen to hide from us tonight – but will be visible soon!

Uranus is my favourite planet without life, and I can’t wait to observe it soon. Stargazing is the perfect lockdown activity. It’s relaxing, it’s best done far away from people other than your family/housemates, yet it connects you to everyone on Earth. I hope you enjoy it!

In conclusion:

  • Uranus is the unusual seventh planet from the Sun, and the third gas giant.
  • It is flipped onto its side, with vertical rings.
  • Uranus has 27 moons, mostly named after Shakespeare characters.
  • Uranus was discovered in the 1700s in Bath, and Astronomers argued over its name for nearly 100 years.
  • You can see Uranus with the naked eye if you’re lucky, or fairly easily with a telescope.

What’s next on CosWatch?

Next time, I’ll be talking about the Andromeda galaxy, the most distant and large object so far on CosWatch. See you soon!

Notes:

Fun Science recently created a “Planets and Space” home kit, pre-orderable now for only £5.00. Check it out here!

In this article I describe Uranus as a gas giant. In fact, along with Neptune, it is a special type of gas giant called an “ice giant”. All that means is that it has lots of gasses other than Hydrogen and Helium.

Younger scientists, or older ones with good taste, may want to check out The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System in Joanna Cole’s Magic School Bus series to help them remember and learn about the different planets – though note that this book has Pluto classified as a planet, which is of course out of date..

Forensic Fun: Fantastic Fingerprints!29/06/2020

BREAKING NEWS: There has been a crime at the Fun Science HQ. Chemical Cress has discovered that all of her delicious digestive cookies  for the Big Experiment have been eaten!

Clearly, some forensic investigation (detective talk for “collecting clues”) is required. This is the perfect time to whip out our Fantastic Fingerprints experiment.

You will need:

  • Two pieces of paper (preferably one scrap, to help the environment)
  • Some sellotape
  • A pencil

Collect your fingerprints:

1) Use your scrap paper to draw a filled square.

Pencils are made of graphite. When you draw something, you are pressing graphite molecules onto the paper.

 

2) Press the finger of your suspect into the square.

This process moves the graphite molecules from the paper onto the ridges and grooves of your finger.

You can even see the grooves and ridges of our glamorous model’s fingertips here.

3) Push that finger into a section of sellotape.

It’s easier to keep the amount of sellotape small – long tangled strips are annoying!

4) Press that sellotape section onto your clean piece of paper, and label it. This is your fingerprint!

This isn’t a particularly even or clear fingertip. Still, it should suffice as evidence.

Now you have a record of a fingerprint. Do this for all of your suspects, and you can compare this to fingerprints you collect at the scene of the crime to discover the culprit!

About fingerprints

Fingerprints are essentially unique to every human being. Investigators, such as police officers or detectives, collect them. This is because, by matching collected fingerprints to ones in a database, you easily identify someone who has handled an object or touched a surface.

Humans have recorded fingerprints since ancient times. That said, Historians think people probably didn’t realise that everyone had unique fingertips until Victorian times; In 1840, a Doctor wrote to the police, suggesting checking for fingerprints to investigate a murder.

In The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, a Sherlock Holmes story released in 1903, a fingerprint is the key piece of evidence that helps the detctive solve a crime. Fingerprints have been used in crime stories and real life forensic investigations ever since.