Astronomy

You've probably heard that there's going to be a solar eclipse which will be visible from much of the United States on August 21, 2017.  Beginning about 9:00am Pacific time off the coast of Oregon, the Moon will begin eclipsing the Sun and it will pass across the continental U.S. Depending on what state you live in, you may see a full or partial eclipse. NASA has information about where and when to observe the eclipse.

Definition of a Solar Eclipse:

A solar eclipse occurs when moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, causing a shadow to fall on the the surface of the Earth (blocking the Sun's light).

solar eclipse(Photograph of a solar eclipse for 2008 from NASA)

Solar Eclipse Science

Why are scientists so interested in a total eclipse? First of all it is an opportunity to study the area of plasma flowing around the sun called the solar corona. Normally it is difficult to see the solar corona because it is obscured by the bright light of the sun itself. During a total eclipse, however, that light is blocked and the corona is visible, which allows people to observe and study it.

It is also an opportunity to examine the effects of limiting solar radiation on a smaller scale than occurs when the sun goes down at night.

Why doesn't everyone in the path see a total eclipse? It turns out that when light hits an object, the shadow is not uniform.

The dark center shadow, called the umbra, gets narrower further from the object blocking the light. Only areas in the path of the Moon's umbral shadow will see a total eclipse.

The lighter penumbra shadow gets wider behind an object. Areas in the path of the Moon's penumbral shadow will see a partial eclipse.

Are you going to miss the 2017 eclipse? Don't worry, the next total solar eclipse will be April 8, 2024, passing over the eastern half of the U.S.

Eclipse-Related Science Activities

This summer take advantage of some of the great science activities relating to the solar eclipse. If it passing over your area, visit events hosted by local planetariums and astronomy groups. You can also participate in citizen science projects.

  1. The Sanford Solar Center has tips for observing the sun safely and suggested activities.
  2. California Academy of Sciences has a citizen science project observing behavior of animals during the eclipse (uses the iNaturalist App).
  3. The GLOBE Program has research looking at the impact of Sun's radiation on the Earth's surface. Citizen scientists record air and surface temperatures before, during, and after the eclipse (uses the GLOBE Observer App). Includes instructions for building a wind monitoring device.
  4. NASA has a list of related Citizen Science projects
  5. Take NASA's lunar challenge
  6. Share It Science has instructions for making a pinhole viewer
  7. Read a children's book about eclipses such as :

The beginning reader level book, Eclipses (Amazing Sights of the Sky) by Martha E. H. Rustad

These books feature short sentences and carefully-controlled vocabulary.

See a preview at Google Books.

For older kids, you might want to try this middle grade title, Go See The Eclipse: And Take a Kid with You by Chap Percival


Go See the Eclipse explains what an eclipse is, and gives specific advice on where to go, what to take, and how to prepare. Also contains personal anecdotes about the thrill of viewing a total eclipse.

Paperback: 148 pages
Publisher: Bee Ridge Press; 1a edition (April 24, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0986197521
ISBN-13: 978-0986197529

Interested in reading more? Check out our growing list of books about eclipses at Science Books for Kids.

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For STEM Friday we are keeping with the astronomy theme with an amazing book about the universe written for young adults (ages 13+).

It is often difficult to find good nonfiction science books for young adults. By the time readers reach their teen years, if they are interested in science they are often forced to resort to reading books written for adults. That is why we were excited to find Our Universe Revealed: A Cosmic Exploration by E. L. Strauss, which targets this under-served age group.

Skimming through this book, the first thing you notice are the awe-inspiring illustrations.

milky-way-large( - Public Domain)

How can a reader not be enticed to want to explore the universe after looking at photographs of the Milky Way like this one?

Our understanding of the universe is changing rapidly. Strauss guides the reader through a thorough introduction by relating unfamiliar and complex topics to more familiar ones. For example, how do scientists study the history of space? Strauss explains that the processes of uncovering clues are similar to those used here on Earth in the field of archeology, and then gives specific examples.

Do you know what a magnetar is? What about degenerate matter or population III stars? If these terms are unfamiliar, this book will introduce you to them. Strauss, however, doesn't just string together vocabulary words. The author also explains how the concepts fit in the bigger picture. As a case in point, Strauss shows how our ability to create better technology to explore the universe has greatly increased our body of knowledge.

Although - as the book summary states - Our Universe Revealed is "aimed at bright, gifted, curious and creative teens," it is also likely to appeal to adults who want a clear understanding of some of the most cutting-edge concepts in astronomy today. Nothing expands your mind like exploring the cosmos and this book is a wonderful way to start.

Paperback: 136 pages
Publisher: Thinxygen; 1 edition (November 6, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0620683562
ISBN-13: 978-0620683562

Disclosure:  A .pdf was provided by the author for review purposes. Also, I am an affiliate with Amazon so I can provide you with cover images and links to more information about books and products. As you probably are aware, if you click through the highlighted title link and purchase a product, I will receive a very small commission, at no extra cost to you. Any proceeds help defray the costs of hosting and maintaining this website.

Come visit the STEM Friday blog each week to find more great Science, Technology, Engineering and Math books.

Are your children interested in learning more about the physical sciences? We'll be adding a series of activities to explore:

  • Astronomy (today)
  • Meteorology
  • Earth Science
  • Physics
  • Chemistry

Astronomy is the study of objects and processes that occur out in space. Astronomy covers the moon, planets, the solar system, asteroids, comets, stars, nebulae, galaxies, etc.

Let's start our study with near objects.

moonset-peake(Photograph by Tim Peake of the European Space Agency Image Credit: ESA/NASA)

The Moon

Begin by observing the moon on a clear night, which will raise a child’s interest and start the questions flowing. Check the newspaper for the weather, phase of moon and local times when the moon will rise and set.

Try to find an area away from lights and look at the moon. Take a pair of binoculars or a telescope with you, if available (The moon is bright, so don’t stare at it with binoculars for too long).

Activity 1.  Making Craters

The most obvious features on the face of the moon are the impact craters. Children can create and study craters using a simple model.

Gather:

  • Flour
  • Powdered cocoa or cornmeal
  • Unbreakable pan
  • Marbles and/or rocks
  • Candy sprinkles (optional)
  • Newspaper or garbage bags (optional)

Find a level surface, preferably outside or indoors where a bit of flour won't cause a mess. Cover the surface with some newspaper or flat garbage bags to help with clean up. Fill a large pan (preferably unbreakable, such as aluminum or plastic) halfway with flour. If you want, you can also add a thin layer of candy sprinkles to represent other minerals present under the surface. Finally, gently add a thin layer of cocoa powder or cornmeal.

Have your kids drop various round objects into the flour. The results should be some interesting craters and splash patterns, which are the patterns of debris shot out of the crater with impact.

This video from NASA gives more complete details.

Related:

1. Outreach Resources from Night Sky Network, which include the following activities to download (may have to provide some information for access) :

  • Does the moon rotate?
  • Observing the Moon
  • Why does the moon have phases?
  • Why do eclipses happen?

2. World Space Week Heinlein Teacher Kit (direct link to .pdf)

3. Geology.com has an interactive map of the 50 largest impact craters on Earth.

The Solar System

The next step into astronomy is to study the planets and other objects in the solar system.

Activity 2:  Make a poster or model of the solar system.

One simple way to study all the planets is to create a mobile or poster of the solar system. How complicated a project this can be will depend on the age and interests of your child. Use your imagination and move beyond Styrofoam balls (which can be expensive).

Suggested materials:

  • Cloth
  • Salt clay or model magic
  • Paper maché
  • Yarn/string (see video below)
  • Balloons
  • Paper

How to make decorative balls out of yarn that could be used for a solar system model:


You can also purchase model kits made of various materials.


(Amazon Affiliate Link)

Related Resources:

Exploratorium has a calculator to determine the relative sizes and distances for a scale model.

The European Space Agency has an excellent set of lesson plans complete with full color images of objects in the solar system to download:  Our Solar System

The McDonald Observatory has a lesson on making a scale model of the solar system (direct .pdf link) to download (as well as many related lessons)

When the mobile/model is completed, ask some questions. Why do we have night and day? What is an eclipse? Why do we have seasons? A sophisticated model can help answer some of these questions.

Activity 3:  Outdoor Solar System Scale Models

Take a field trip to an outdoor scale model of the solar system. Wikimedia has a partial list of scale models found throughout the world.

In Arizona try:

  1. The Solar System Walk at the Environmental Education Center in Chandler, Arizona
  2. Display around the observatory at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve, Gilbert, Arizona.
  3. The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Do you know where there's a scale model of the solar system to explore? Please leave a comment.

Books about planets and the solar system

planet-books-button

Stars/Universe

It might seem like it would be difficult to study something as large and complex as the the universe, but there are actually many potential hands-on activities.

  1. Take a trip to a planetarium.
  2. Study dust
  3. Make your own galaxy
  4. Scale model of a black hole (advanced)
  5. Constellation Detective (direct link to .pdf)
  6. Build your own telescope, for example using this kit from Home Science Tools (I am not affiliated with this company)

Want to learn more? Khan Academy has video lessons about stars, black holes and galaxies.

Lists of related children's books at Science Books for Kids:

Children's books about stars and the universe.

stars-books-button

For National Poetry Month, try our list of Poetry Books about Space

space-poetry-for-kids

 

Physical Science Investigations