You have made a spectrometer.
Go outside and look through the CD end.
What do you see? Do you recognise the pattern or colours? You should be able to see a rainbow.
Try looking at different types of light and different light sources: desk lamps, fluorescent tubes, TVs, mobile phone torches.
Can you spot any differences in the patterns that you can see? Why do you think this is? What might be different about the light sources that you are looking at?
Where you surprised by any of the distances between planets? Your model may represent the distance, but do you think your planets are the correct size in comparison to each other? Watch this video to see the comparative size of the planets and the sun.
National Careers Week is upon us, 7th-11th March 2016! A celebration of careers guidance and a focus for activity across the UK. Be sure to explore the official website for resources, including the free-download 2016 digital magazine.
If you’re looking for a quick case study to inspire your students, here’s a role model who’s current, pushes boundaries, and is positively dripping in STEMness:
Elon Musk. Picked by business magazine Forbes as the 38th most powerful person in the world, Musk is a self-made billionaire. South-African born, Canadian-American, and a physics graduate, he’s made his name as an entrepreneur, building businesses like PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors. Elon’s back story is just as fascinating as what he is doing now, and as a leading visionary of the tech world, his work is likely to affect the lives of us all.
Messages to take away and reiterate:
Whether your students see themselves as the next Elon Musk or would like to work for someone like him, this presentation should encourage discussion about STEM careers as well as the characteristics and attitude to learning and life that Musk displays. His company SpaceX has a terrific careers page with a load of cool jobs like: commercial director, internship opportunities, propulsion development engineer (making rockets go fast), or software development. Yes, these job opportunities are in America, but if this is the type of company in which you’re interested, why let the Atlantic Ocean stop you in your pursuit of job happiness?
What’s happening in North East England?
Here’s a tiny handful of the most exciting and dynamic companies in our region. Have a look on their careers pages to gain an understanding of the types of jobs they offer, and the people they are looking for…
- Nomad Digital: A Newcastle based company providing wireless networking for trains, right around the globe.
- Hitachi Rail Europe: Based in Newton Aycliffe, Hitachi are fitting out trains to be used all over the world.
- Kromek: Based at Netpark Sedgfield. Kromek develop a range of radiation detection equipment used in the nuclear industry, medical imaging and for security screening.
- Sanofi – Aventis: a multinational company with a site in Newcastle who manufacture a range of pharmaceutical products for the healthcare industry. (Careers Page)
- Tharsus: helping other companies develop their products through a team of developers with skills in manufacturing, prototyping and managing
Size of the Moon, Planets, and their orbits
Diagrams of the solar system, like the one above from NASA/JPL, often show the planets very close together. There’s no good alternative in a diagram of this size – as you’ll see, drawing all the planets to scale, and their orbits to scale, a diagram as big as your screen would just look empty.
In fact, designer Josh Worth made just that diagram: he drew the Moon as a single pixel, and scaled the rest of the solar system to that. The result is “A tediously accurate scale model of the solar system”, and it’s well worth a click. And a lot of scrolling. And more scrolling. Also: more scrolling. Then keep scrolling. You get the idea. Don’t miss the mind-blowing “light speed” button in the bottom right corner.
Sometimes it helps us grasp things if we hold things in our hands we can manipulate. It turns out, you can visualise the distance between the Earth and the Moon fairly easily: it’s about ten times the circumference of the Earth away from us. So:
- Pick a ball to represent the Earth
- Wrap a piece of string around the middle of the ball ten times
- Unwrap the string.
That string is a visual representation of how far away the Moon is, compared to that ball as the Earth.
If we go further out then the problem with the solar system is that space is big. It’s really hard to create a solar system model which has the same scale for both the diameter of the planets and the distances between the planets. The activity we use for Think Physics is similar to The Earth as a peppercorn from the US National Optical Astronomy Observatory. There are variations on the theme all over the internet, but we found NOAO’s take particularly clear.
How big are the planets in relation to each other?
Thinkzone has an online solar system calculator. Choose a size for the Sun, and it will work out how large the planets would be to scale, and how far away. For our workshop we start with a 22cm diameter football representing the Sun, and the picture right shows some of the other objects which work out to be the right sizes for our model.
For our football Sun, the innermost planet Mercury would be about the size of a hundreds and thousands cake decoration. Which is tricky partly because they’re really really small, but also because we’re not sure what to call a single ‘hundreds and thousands’.
Moving on: to the same scale, a silver dragée (one of those slightly crunchy silver balls you sometimes decorate cakes with. You might spot a theme here…) works to represent the Earth. A cherry tomato is good for Jupiter.
Having assembled our set of planetary objects, we then think about putting them in the right places relative to each other. If we put our football Sun in the centre of Think Physics’ base at Northumbria University, the orbit of our hundred and thousand Mercury just grazes the corners of our lab. The maps show where all the other planets would orbit:
Beyond the planets
How old are the Earth and the Solar System?
To work out how old the Solar system and the Earth are, we make use of rocks which were left over after the formation of the planets: meteorites. We’ve an entire activity page about meteorites.
In order to calculate how old meteorites are, astrogeologists (yes, that’s a job) make use of the natural radioactive elements in the rocks. All radioactive elements decay over time: some very quickly, others over much longer periods. When they decay they change into different elements, so by looking at the ratios of elements in the rock, it’s possible to calculate out how old the rock is. A similar method – carbon dating – is used to work out how old objects are on Earth.
In the UK, the space sector is growing at an impressive rate. There are far more jobs than just ‘astronaut’ – but that’s often the only thing that people can think of when we ask them to name some careers involving space.
In 2014, according to the UK Space Agency, there were 34,000 people in the UK who were working in the UK Space Industry – and they’re not all living on the International Space Station! As well as that, the UK Space Industry supports 72,000 jobs in other sectors.
Here at NUSTEM we have found examples space-related careers.
This Space Careers STEM Session can be used as part of an assembly or lesson about future careers.
We’ve also produced a Space Careers Home Learning worksheet to follow the assembly / lesson.
Teachers notes can be found Teacher Notes and Guidance.
We hope these resources are of value to you. Please do let us know how you have made use of them.
Spotting a Dragon
On Tuesday night (or afternoon if you’re in the US) SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket. The rocket was carrying a small spacecraft called the Dragon capsule which is destined for the International Space Station (ISS). Thanks to the joy of the internet, I was able to watch the launch live via webcam. However, even more exciting, was that 20 minutes later I could go out into my garden and watch the rocket travel overhead as it passed over the UK. You might even be able to see the Dragon capsule over the next few nights – but it’s hard to predict because its flight path changes during the mission. Virtual Astronomer has put up some details about when you might be able to see it.
The Dragon capsule is delivering supplies to the ISS – including the first ever space coffee machine! Maybe that’s because there’s currently an Italian astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, on board! The capsule is due to reach the ISS on Friday where two of the ISS crew will use a robotic arm to capture it.
Waving to the astronauts
Although the nights are getting lighter now, it is still possible to see the ISS pass overhead. I find it quite astonishing that I can watch a large tin can flying overhead which has other human beings living in it. I usually wave if I spot it.
Many people find the night sky fascinating. A lot of children will have been asked to keep a Lunar diary in primary school, and had great fun looking for and sketching the moon. However, I think that it’s great for young people to learn the different constellations in the night sky. Many will already know familiar once such as Orion or the Great Bear (or Big Dipper).
Using websites or apps, you can look up into the sky and spot stars and galaxies that are many, many light years away.
Of course, you can also visit a planetarium such as the one at the Centre for Life which can show you the night sky at any time of day. Even better is to go to Kielder Observatory where you will be able to use telescopes to look at the distant stars and planets.
Your Guide to the Solar Eclipse
A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun – a rare occurrence. Don’t miss your chance to watch celestial mechanics in action, on 20th March 2015, from 08:30 to 10:44. Observers across the UK will be able to watch as the Moon’s orbit passes in front of the Sun. The transit of the Moon across the Sun will begin at 8:30am. As the eclipse reaches its maximum (90%) coverage at 9:35am, the sky will darken and the temperature will drop. Although there will be more partial eclipses in the coming years, the next total eclipse viewable from the UK won’t happen until 2090. So there’s no excuse not to download our eclipse viewer (see below) and head outside on the 20th March to watch the eclipse as it happens. The video (below) from SciShow Kids is a great introduction for young children on the mechanics of the solar eclipse.
A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun – a rare occurrence. Don’t miss your chance to watch celestial mechanics in action, on 20th March 2015, from 08:30 to 10:44.
Observers across the UK will be able to watch as the Moon’s orbit passes in front of the Sun. The transit of the Moon across the Sun will begin at 8:30am. As the eclipse reaches its maximum (90%) coverage at 9:35am, the sky will darken and the temperature will drop.
Although there will be more partial eclipses in the coming years, the next total eclipse viewable from the UK won’t happen until 2090. So there’s no excuse not to download our eclipse viewer (see below) and head outside on the 20th March to watch the eclipse as it happens.
The video (below) from SciShow Kids is a great introduction for young children on the mechanics of the solar eclipse.
What is a solar eclipse?
When we draw pictures of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth, and their orbit around the Sun, we tend to draw them flat – like the diagram below. Looking at that, you’d think the Moon would pass in front of the Sun every month. It doesn’t, because the diagram is over-simplified.
In reality, the Moon’s orbit around the Earth and the Earth’s around the Sun are inclined relative to each other by about 5°. The points where the two orbital planes meet are called lunar nodes, and solar eclipses only happen when a new Moon occurs near a lunar node.
There’s one other feature of the Solar System that makes solar eclipses possible: the Sun is 400x further from the Earth than the Moon, but it’s also 400x larger. So to us, standing on Earth, they appear to be the same size in the sky. This is a staggering coincidence, and we get to enjoy the spectacle of an eclipse only because of that accident of geometry.
Solar eclipses are regular and predictable, but because everything has to be in the right place simultaneously they’re also very rare. Experiencing one is astonishing.
The diagram shows how different parts of the planet experience a solar eclipse. The small area in the centre, in the track of the moon’s shadow across the Earth, is called the umbra. That’s where we experience a total solar eclipse. The more extended region to either side is called the penumbra: there, you’ll experience a partial solar eclipse.
So on 20th March, Newcastle is in the penumbra.
Different types of eclipse
“Partial solar eclipse Oct 23 2014 Minneapolis 5-36pm Ruen1” by Tomruen – Own work.
In the penumbra. You’re much more likely to see a partial eclipse than a total eclipse.
Next viewable from Newcastle:
21 August 2017
Want more eclipse information? We’ve got you covered.
- Time and Date have a handy eclipse calculator for Newcastle
- NASA keep an eclipse page up-to-date too
- The Royal Astronomical Society have a page of further information for schools and teachers
- Reading University are running a National Eclipse Weather Experiment – join in here
- ABC News have some nice animations in their report on the 1999 total solar eclipse (do check this works with your IT system before trying to show in your school!)
Watching the eclipse online
In this workshop, you’ll see the oldest objects you’ll ever encounter – fragments of meteorite as old as (or even older than!) the Earth itself. You won’t just see them from a distance, you’ll pick them up, feel them and study them closely.
Meteorites are fragments of rock and metal which formed out in space, sometimes in the very early stages of our solar system. The samples you’ll see have survived a fiery descent through the Earth’s atmosphere before smashing into the surface.
Before we get stuck in, though, let’s get one thing straight: meteoroids, meteors, and meteorites are slightly different things:
- meteoroids are fragments of material out in space which haven’t yet entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
- meteors are the bright, fast trails you’ll very occasionally see in the night sky. You might call them ‘shooting stars’, but they’re former meteoroids which are burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
- meteorites are meteors which survive their descent to land (or smash into) the Earth. Most are tiny – less than 1mm across – but some are larger. A very few are huge. Ask the dinosaurs about those.
The workshop includes handling and observing some of the meteorites in our collection. They’re a particularly dashing bunch of rocks, if we do say so ourselves, and we like showing them off:
We’re particularly fond of this beauty, which is one fragment of a huge find from Argentina called the Campo del Cielo. A thousand kilometres northwest of Buenos Aires lies a field of at least 26 craters, dating back four or five thousand years. More than 100 tonnes of meteorite material has been recovered from the area so far – the largest meteorite ever recovered on Earth.
Some of the pieces even have their own names: a 634kg piece donated to the British Museum (and now on display in the Natural History Museum) is known as the “Otumpa Mass”. Our fragment is a little smaller.
Continue this at home!
Do have a go at the impact crater activity above. Alternatively here is a happy activity for a cold winter’s night: curl up on the sofa and explore this map of sites where meteorites from out in space have smashed holes in the surface of the Earth.
The map lists some of our favourite meteorite impact craters, with links to more information about each. Take a look!
It’s very rare to actually see a meteorite land, but in February 2013 a large meteor was seen over Russia. You can read all about it, and see a video, on the BBC website.
We recently had a request from a local school for a workshop that linked maths and space. A natural fit, of course, and an example of the sort of workshop we can pull together to fit in with your teaching needs.
As a starter, we looked at the first half of the classic ‘Powers of Ten’ film:
It’s a great film to use to show the massive range of scales over which physics is useful, from galaxies to people to quarks. However, for this session, I wanted to focus just on the journey out to the edge of the observable universe.
After than we turned out attention to our nearest (natural) neighbour – the Moon. Although the diagrams of the solar system often show the Moon as being very close to Earth, you can visualise the distance easily because the Moon is about 10x the diameter of the Earth away from us. Using any ball to represent the Earth, wrap a piece of string around the middle of the ball ten times. Unwrap, and there you have a nice visual representation of how far away the Moon is.
When I was teaching in a school, one of my regular activities was to make a scale model of the solar system. The problem with the solar system is that space is BIG. It’s really hard to create a solar system model which has the same scale for both the diameter of the planets and the distances between the planets. The activity I used for Think Physics is one which is adapted from ‘The Earth as a peppercorn,’ and there are variations on the theme all over the internet.
How big are the planets in relation to each other?
There are online calculators which will allow you to do the scaling without effort, but as we were doing a maths workshop, we got out our scientific calculators and did the maths ourselves. We used a football (diameter 20cm) as the Sun, and used scaling to work out the diameter of the planets. If you don’t want to do your own calculations then I like the Thinkzone version of the solar system calculator. In the picture you can see the options that I offered as possible objects that would be the right size for our model.
Having worked out that hundreds and thousands are about the right size for mercury, silver dragées work for Earth, and cherry tomatoes would be good for Jupiter, we then tried to put the objects in the correct place – using the same scale.
We used a toilet roll to help with the distances (similar to this NRICH activity) – and the students quickly realised that there just wasn’t enough space in our lab. In fact, using our scale (the Sun as a football), the only planet we could fit into Think Lab was Mercury. The maps show where we would have to put our objects.
If you want to do this activity – you could use the Thinkzone calculator and center the solar system on your own school – you just need your latitude and longitude, which you can find by placing a marker on Google Maps. Students can then work out where their house is on the map, or you could even go on a solar system safari and walk the distances involved using a trundle wheel and your map.
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