Lunar and Planetary Institute

Explore! Fun with Science
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Explore! News
December 2005

Previous News Announcements

December 2005


December 21 – Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere; the first day of winter and the shortest period of sunlight of the year!

January 11 - New Horizons Mission launch
The New Horizons mission will have a long journey of 3 billion miles, and will fly past Pluto in July 2015, moving at about 30,000 miles an hour. It will continue flying out of the Solar System, passing by other Kuiper belt objects (icy-rocky bodies) on the way. For more information, go to the New Horizons Web site. For classroom resources and activities go to the Educators section of the New Horizons Web site.

January 15 Stardust Sample Return
The Stardust Mission will be returning samples of a comet to Earth. The Stardust Mission flew through the tail of Comet Wild 2 in January 2004, and gathered particles in a special aerogel substance, which will be returning to Earth this January, landing in the Utah desert. For more information, go to the Stardust Web site. For classroom resources and activities, go to the Available Products section of the Stardust Web site. Additional comet activities can be found on the Kid's and Parents page.

January 20–25, 2006 - American Library Association Midwinter Meeting, San Antonio

January 22 - Mars Northern Spring/Southern Autumn Equinox. North Polar Hood (NPH) will be breaking up, North Polar Cap (NPC) should be exposed and near to 55° areographic latitude.

Explore! News

Brenda Parker of the Lancaster Public Library in Lancaster, South Carolina has found the perfect fit for the Explore! Fun with Science materials. Brenda works in the Children's Department of the library and is currently utilizing the resources for her “Science is Fun” children's program. This program is held once a month from September to April and involves children participating in a science related crafts and experiments. Brenda is proud to mention that she has used the Explore! program almost exclusively for her “Science is Fun” agenda. Thanks Brenda!

Workshops and Courses

Earth Camp Mini-Workshop for Middle School Science Teachers – Based on an interactive, inquiry-based 2-week summer camp for students grades 7–9, this 3-hour mini-workshop involves earth science and astronomy topics and will take place on Saturday, January 14, 2006, from 9:00 am to Noon. It will include a short desert field trip, exploration of water on Mars, and sharing time with live animals. Teachers will receive: $25 stipend, package of field guides and natural history curriculum, free individual admission to the Desert Museum for the afternoon following the workshop, and professional development/recertification credit. The workshop is free but pre-registration is required. Registration deadline is January 11, 2006. Please RSVP to Beth Rice, 520-883-3025.

LPI and ARES One-Day Educator Workshops
Offered at the Harris County Department of Education
January 18, 2006 Extreme Solar System
NASA's current solar system missions — Genesis, Mars Rovers, Cassini, Deep Impact, StarDust, Dawn, and many others — offer extraordinary, teachable moments for space and earth science. This one-day workshop will build your confidence in teaching space and earth science as we investigate why humans explore, how we explore, and the current knowledge of the size, scale, and characteristics of our solar system. Participants will receive extensive curriculum materials, CDs, websites, and posters. 8:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m., Fee: $75, Credits: 6 CPE hours

February 28, 2006 Formation of the Solar System and Planet Processes
Explore how our solar system and planets formed and have been altered over 4.5 billion years of geologic activity. Volcanos, tectonics, impacts, and weathering will be investigated for the terrestrial planets, including Earth. Participants will receive presentation materials and hands-on activities for the classroom. 8:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m., Fee: $75, Credits: 6 CPE hours

Please contact Liliana Maldonado at (713) 696-1306 for registration information. For more workshop details, contact Becky Nelson, or visit the Harris County Department of Education Web site.

Grants and Funding

Educator Researcher Workshops - The SCORE program offers grants to assist in the development and implementation of local professional development workshops for educators in the SCORE six-state region. Workshop design is flexible and should meet the needs of the local community. Funding deadlines are June 15 and January 15. 

Educator Researcher Collaborative Projects - The SCORE program offers grants of up to $1000 to collaborative teams of educators and Science Mission Directorate researchers in the SCORE six-state region.  The grants are intended to help initiate new partnerships between educators and Science Mission Directorate researchers. Funds can be used to purchase materials and resources to increase student or public understanding of space science content.

Science Class Challenge - Participate in the CAPCO Science Class Challenge and win $250 to $5,000 for your school. For grades 4–9, the competition is meant to encourage students and teachers to learn about the Earth's protective upper ozone layer, CFCs, and the environment by using provided activities or their own creative methods. The contest is open to teachers with classes in grades 4–9. Teachers must be employed by a public or private school, or be a home school educator. Deadline: May 8, 2006.


The Stardust team is seeking volunteers to help search for these tiny samples of matter from the galaxy, using a virtual microscope (VM). First, the volunteer will go through a web-based training session and pass a test to qualify to register to participate. After passing the test and registering, volunteers will be able to download a virtual microscope (VM). The VM will automatically connect to the Stardust server and download images that will be collected from the Stardust Interstellar Dust Collector using an automated microscope at the Cosmic Dust Lab at Johnson Space Center. Volunteers will search each field for interstellar dust impacts by focusing up and down with a focus control. For more visit about volunteering visit this site.

Einstein Fellowships
Do you know a K-12 educator who would make a difference in Washington , DC as an Einstein Fellow? Someone who could provide an educator's perspective to legislators and program officers? Forward the name and email address of the teacher to and they will personally be invited to apply!

The Einstein Fellowship program brings outstanding mathematics, science, and technology education teachers to Washington, DC to spend a school year working on Capitol Hill or in one of several participating Federal agencies. Selected Einstein Fellows will serve in the public policy arena and bring their expertise, unique insights, and know-how about the classroom to the Congress and appropriate branches of the Federal government. The application deadline for the 2006-2007 cycle is January 10, 2006.  For information, visit Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education.

Young Naturalist Awards
The American Museum of Natural History 2006 Young Naturalist Awards invites students in grades 7–12 to participate in a research-based essay contest to promote participation and communication in science. Two winners from each grade will be selected to receive cash scholarship awards and an expense-paid trip to New York City for the awards ceremony. Children are asked to conduct their own scientific expedition in astronomy, Earth Science or biology. The expedition will provide original data, questions, and observations. The expedition should provide the child with a new understanding about the question that was investigated. The essay about the expedition should contain artwork and/or photographs that help to illustrate the findings.

The deadline for the Young Naturalist Awards Contest is May 1, 2006. Winning essays will be published on our web site by September 30th. For more information, contact Christine Economos, YNA administrator or call 212-496-3498 or visit the American Museum of Natural History Web site.

Art Contest
The Planetary Society has teamed with the European Space Agency to invite youths and adults worldwide to enter the Venus Express Art Contest. This is a chance to win a trip to mission control in Darmstadt , Germany when Venus Express arrives at its destination in April 2006.

The theme of Venus Express Art Contest is ‘Postcards from Venus.' Contest entrants are invited to imagine the surface of Venus from an above-ground perspective — a bird's eye view of a mysterious world whose volcano-riddled surface contains few impact craters.

Anyone may enter the contest and artwork may be created in any two-dimensional artistic medium, including computer-generated art. The artwork should be of Venus itself, rather than the Venus Express spacecraft. Each finished piece should be the size and shape of a postcard (approximately 10 by 15 cm). Artwork may be mailed or submitted online. Visit The Planetary Society Web site for the complete contest rules and an entry form. The deadline for all entries to be received — by mail or online January 13, 2006, 11:59 PM Pacific Standard Time. 


Arizona Graduate Student Interested in Partnering with Classrooms
A second year University of Arizona graduate student, funded as a NASA Space Grant Fellow, is volunteering to educate a segment of the public about space-related topics. The lessons developed cover: Earth/Moon Formation, Plate Tectonics, Volcanoes, Water Processes/Effects, Wind Processes/Effects, and Impact Craters. Requests for a copy of the curriculum and/or having her come to your classroom and present specific topic information should be sent to Serina Diniega.

Mother Goose
Looking for resources to help engage parents and children pre-K to age 7 in math and science through reading? The Mother Goose Program™ provides librarians and other educators with books, activities and other resources to engage parents and their children. Resources also are as available for parents. Visit the site for a list of recommended children's books and for training opportunities in New England. There is a fee for materials and membership. For more information about the program or how to sign up visit The Mother Goose Programs™ Web site.

Talk Show for Kids
Searching for ways to get children to think about careers in science?  NASA's Space Place Website offers a cartoon "talk show" for kids with NASA scientists and engineers chatting about their work, how they chose their careers, and what they like to do for fun. Visitors to the site can simulate working on space and earth science missions. Children can also explore science related games, science projects, animations, science facts and other related topics.

AstroCapella is a great resource for librarians or teachers! AstroCappella combines hands-on activities with rocking, high-energy songs written and performed by The Chromatics. The lessons can stand alone and explore how radio telescopes work, what the surfaces of our nearest-neighbor planets are like, and more. Or you can just use the music CD as a starting point for other types of activities — the songs help to explain concepts and provide mnemonics to help the children learn and remember. The songs cover the full spectrum, from radio astronomy, through optical observations with the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, to the powerful pulsars, black holes and quasars of high-energy X-ray astronomy. They provide a springboard to explore the Sun and Moon, the nine planets, and the nearest stars. Cost is $15 with bulk order discounts possible.

ISS EarthKAM (Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students) is a NASA sponsored program that provides high quality photographs of our planet taken from the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. Since 1996, ISS EarthKAM students have taken thousands of photographs of Earth by using the World Wide Web to direct a digital camera on select space flights and currently on the International Space Station. The main objective is to enable students, teachers, informal educators and the public to learn about Earth from the unique perspective of space. At the core of the program is a spectacular collection of digital images of Earth. The image collection and accompanying learning guides and activities are extraordinary resources to support classes in Earth science, space science, geography, social studies, mathematics, communications and even art.

Mission News and Science

Modified from:
In January 2006, NASA's Stardust mission will return to Earth after nearly 7 years in interplanetary space. During its journey Stardust encountered Comet Wild-2, collecting dust particles from it in a special material called aerogel.  The scientific importance of these first solid samples from our Galaxy can't be overstated. Interstellar dust and gas were the building blocks of our solar system, the Earth, and all living things, including people. We are truly made of stardust.

At two other times in the mission, the aerogel collectors were also opened to collect interstellar dust. By studying this dust, scientists hope to learn about the origins of the Solar System. They wish to know what the ingredients were that went into making it. When the mission returns, the aerogel collectors exposed to the interstellar dust will be scanned by an automated microscope. There will be approximately 1.6 million fields of view, but perhaps only a few dozen total grains of interstellar dust in the entire collector; it will be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Venus Express
Modified from:
The European Space Agency successfully launched Venus Express from Kazakhstan last month. The spacecraft carries cameras, spectrometers and other instruments to study the atmosphere and near-space environment of Venus from an elliptical polar orbit around the planet. Venus Express will pull into orbit around our closest planetary neighbor and begin five months of scheduled observations. On the short list of mission objectives: a detailed mapping of Venus' surface, a survey of the planet's complex atmosphere, and a look into the possibility of active Venusian volcanoes. Venus Express will arrive at its destination in April 2006 — our first return to Venus since October of 1994 when the Magellan mission ended with a dramatic plunge to the planet's surface.

NASA Rover Helps Reveal Possible Secrets of Martian Life
Modified from:
Was Mars early environment conducive to life? A recent study of data obtained by NASA's Opportunity rover now shows that life may have had a tough time getting started in the ancient harsh Martian environment. Scientists have been able to deduce conditions in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars were sometimes wet, strongly acidic and oxidizing. Those conditions probably posed stiff challenges to the origin of Martian life.

Scientists analyzed data about stacked sedimentary rock layers 23 feet thick, exposed inside "Endurance Crater." They identified three divisions within the stack. The lowest, oldest portion had the signature of dry sand dunes; the middle portion, windblown sheets of sand with all the particles produced in part by previous evaporation of liquid water. The upper portion corresponded to layers Opportunity found earlier inside a smaller crater near its landing site.

Materials in all three divisions were wet both before and after the layers were deposited by either wind or water. Researchers described chemical evidence that the sand grains deposited in the layers had been altered by water before the layers formed. The stack of layers in Endurance Crater resulted from a changeable environment perhaps 3.5 to 4 billion years ago. The area may have looked like salt flats occasionally holding water, surrounded by dunes. The Rio Tinto region of White Sands, New Mexico bears a similar physical resemblance. Many types of microbes live in the Rio Tinto environment, one of the reasons for concluding that ancient Meridiani could have been habitable. However, the organisms at Rio Tinto are descended from populations that live in less acidic and stressful habitats. If Meridiani had any life, it might have had to originate in a different habitat.

NASA Discovers Life's Building Blocks Are Common in Space
Modified from:
A team of NASA exobiology researchers revealed recently that organic chemicals that play a crucial role in the chemistry of life are common in space. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has shown complex organic molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are found throughout our galaxy.  PAHs, large, flat, chicken-wire shaped molecules made up of hydrogen and carbon, are extremely stable and can withstand the hostile radiation environment of interstellar space. The NASA team showed that PAHs are responsible for the mysterious infrared radiation that astronomers first called the Unidentified Infrared Emission. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has now detected the PAH tell-tale signature throughout our galaxy the Milky Way and in galaxies very far away, galaxies nearly as old as the Universe itself.  Now the NASA team has found that these PAHs contain nitrogen, a key biochemical element.

Life requires organic molecules that contain nitrogen. Chlorophyll, the substance that enables photosynthesis in plants, is a good example of this class of compounds, called polycyclic aromatic nitrogen heterocycles, or PANHs. Ironically, PANHs are formed in abundance around dying stars. So even in death, the seeds of life are sewn. The NASA team studied the infrared "fingerprint" of PANHs in laboratory experiments and with computer simulations to learn more about infrared radiation that astronomers have detected coming from space. They used data from the European Space Agency's Infrared Space Observatory satellite.

Did You Know?

Why the Winter Solstice is called the Winter Solstice
Modified from:
Wednesday Dec. 21st the winter solstice officially begins for the northern hemisphere. But if you're like most people, the concept of the winter solstice can be a bit confusing. To fully understand the concept imagine the first day of spring. The first day of spring is also called 'the vernal equinox', vernal meaning 'green', and equinox meaning 'equal night', which simply means that on the equinox the hours of daylight are equal to the hours of night. On the first day of spring, the vernal equinox, the Sun rises exactly due east and sets exactly due west. And each successive day thereafter it rises and sets just a little bit farther to the north until the summer solstice, the first day of summer, when the Sun reaches its northernmost point along the horizon and actually seems to 'stand still' and rise and set in the same place for a few days. In fact the word 'solstice' means 'Sun stands still'.

The first day of summer is the longest day of the year or the day of longest daylight. After the solstice the Sun will appear to reverse its direction and will rise and set just a little bit farther south each successive day. And each successive day the time of daylight will grow just a little bit shorter and on the autumnal equinox, the first day of autumn, the Sun will once again rise due east and set due west and the hours of daylight will again be equal to the hours of night. Then the Sun will continue its journey southward rising and setting a little bit farther south each day and daylight will continue to get shorter and night time longer each day until the winter solstice, the first day of winter, when the Sun will reach its farthest point south and once again will appear to 'solstice' that is stand still and rise and set in the same place for a few days. And at the time of the solstice, the northern hemisphere will experience the shortest day of the year, meaning the day of least sunlight and most night. Then a few days after the solstice the Sun will appear to retrace its steps and will rise and set just a little bit farther north on the horizon each successive day until once again we'll be back where we started on the vernal equinox, the first day of spring and the Sun will rise and set due east and west.



Last updated
December 20, 2006