Lunar and Planetary Institute



Greetings Explore! Community

This newsletter is intended to highlight Earth and space science information and opportunities for informal educators. If you have events, resources, news, or activities to share, or would like to give us feedback, please contact us at

In this issue:

Calendar of Events

December 5-8 The National Community Education Association annual conference in Minneapolis, MN.
December 13-14 Geminid Meteor Shower peak
December 22 Winter Solstice (first day of winter)
Janurary 11-16 The 2008 American Library Association Midwinter Meeting will be held in Philadelphia, PA.
February 14-17 Beyond School Hours XI Annual Conference in Jacksonville, Florida
February 20 Total Lunar Eclipse


Space Rocks!

Mars - Inside and Out!

What is a shooting star?

What is the difference between a meteor and a meteorite?

What is a meteoroid?

What really is the difference between meteoroids, meteors, and meteorites? Meteoroids are pieces of dust and rock that orbit our Sun in space. They can be as small as sand grains or as large as boulders. When they enter Earth's atmosphere, however, they compress the air in front of them, causing it to get hot - so hot that the air begins to glow! These glowing streaks of light, caused by meteoroids moving through our atmosphere, are meteors. The heat produced melts or vaporizes some, or all, of the particle. Meteorites are meteoroids that have survived their trip through Earth's atmosphere and landed on Earth's surface.

Orbiting the Sun in Space
The streaks of light created by meteoroids traveling through Earth's atmosphere
Meteoroids that have Landed on Earth

And finally, "Do meteors actually have anything to do with falling or shooting stars?"  No, meteors have nothing at all to do with stars, but to the best of my knowledge, wishes made upon a shooting rock do come true!


The AfterSchool DIGEST Web site offers a useful resource for afterschool professionals. Their Web site is a single entry point that provides links to afterschool organizations and agencies, resource lists, conferences, and events. They also welcome afterschool providers to share news and information about their own programs.



Sun-Earth Day 2008: Space Weather Around the WorldNew Sun-Earth Day Web Site
Sun-Earth Day will be on March 20, 2008. This site includes a new calendar that features upcoming mission launches, conferences, NASA events, amateur astronomer events and star parties, museum exhibits and local happenings relating to Sun-Earth Day. There is also a new podcast and a featured Problem-Based Learning Activity, In the News, that focuses on space flight.


Windows to the UniverseWindows to the Universe
The site includes a rich array of documents, images, movies, animations, sounds, games and data, on Earth and space science topics. Recently added are sections on Earth's Polar Regions and Climate and Global Change. Three levels of content are provided: students (K-12 through undergraduate), teachers and browsing adults.


New Children's Book Releases

The following are recently released children's books focusing on a particular aspect of Earth or space science. Their inclusion is not intended as an endorsement.

New Childre's Book ReleasesSpace Rocks: The Story of Planetary Geologist Adriana Ocampo (Women's Adventures in Science)
Lorraine Jean Hopping, Joseph Henry Press, 2006, ISBN 0309095557
Hopping tells the true and inspiring story of a young girl from Argentina who dreamed of exploring the planets and who, while still in her teens, landed a job with NASA! Adriana's fascinating adventure will engage readers 8 to adult.

Janice Van Cleave's Engineering for Every Kid: Easy Activities That Make Learning Science Fun
Janice Van Cleave, Jossey-Bass Publishing, 2007, ISBN 0471471828
Children ages 9-12 are introduced to the different types of engineering - including aeronautical, solar, electrical and chemical - and the ways in which they interface with science through fun, hands-on experiments.

Encyclopedia of the Solar System, Second Edition
Lucy-Ann McFadden, Paul Weissman, and Torrence Johnson, Academic Press, 2006, ISBN  0120885891
In this one-volume encyclopedia, 56 specialists in solar system science discuss everything from space rocks to exploration missions to solar science.  Scientific American, Sky and Telescope magazine, and the Carnegie Institute all recommend the Encyclopedia as an excellent space science resource for older children, teachers, and amateur astronomers.


Becky Recommends!

Activity iconActivity iconAs the activity designer for several of the Explore! modules, I am always on the lookout for great ways to engage children in Earth and space science. The following activity is the second in a series of activities from the new Explore! Mars - Inside and Out! All activities in Becky Recommends! are designed for tight budgets and tight spaces, and are always educational and fun!

Mars Inside and Out

Volcanos - Go with the Flow


Volcanos - Go with the Flow is a 30-45 minute activity in which children model volcanic eruptions and explore how volcanos grow, how later lava flows overlap earlier ones, and how earlier flows influence the paths of subsequent flows. They determine a volcano's history of eruptions based on the layering of different flows, and reflect on what the presence of volcanos means about a planet's interior.

1.  Have each team pour about 1/3 of the vinegar into their cup – the volcano caldera - and observe the eruption. Ask the children what magma – molten rock inside the Earth – is called when it flows out of a volcano and onto the Earth’s surface. It is called lava. What does the liquid flowing out of the cup represent? Lava.


What's Needed?

For each team of 3 to 5 children:

  • A ~2 foot square sheet of poster board or cardboard, or a tray on which to build the volcano. Box lids also work well.
  • 3 balls of Play-Doh (each about the size of a lemon) in different colors
  • Small paper cups (4 ounce or smaller)
  • Scotch tape
  • 1 clear straw, cut in three 2" sections
  • Several paper towels
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons of baking soda
  • A pencil
  • Gridded paper for mapping by older children
  • Colored pencils or markers
  • Copies of volcano images from the Setting the Scene activity

For the facilitator:


Children ages 8-13

How Long?

30-45 minutes


Prepare an area large enough to accommodate the volcanos for the number of teams participating. For each group of 3 to 5 children, prepare the materials for building a volcano:

  • Cut the top half off one paper cup and tape the cup bottom to the middle of the poster board or tray. Pour the baking soda into the cup.
  • Pour 1/4 cup of vinegar into the second cup.
  • Cut straws in 2" sections.
  • Place 3 balls of Play-Doh, a pencil, the straw pieces, and vinegar near the poster board.
  • Make copies of volcano images.

2. After the eruption, have the children trace around the general outline of the flow, and then blot (don't wipe!) up as much of the liquid as possible. Have them take one ball of Play-Doh, flatten it into a thin sheet, and place it on the area where the lava flowed, following the lava flow boundary marked.

3. Have the children repeat the lava flow procedure two more times, using different colors of Play-Doh to mark each flow. It is important to place the Play-Doh exactly where the lava flowed - even if it is on top of another flow!

4. When they have completed their three flows, invite them to examine their volcano.

  • What is the shape of the volcano? A low hill or cone.
    Facilitator Note: the children's volcanos probably do not look like the steep sided Mount St. Helens that is constructed from lava flows that are thick and explosive. The Play-Doh volcanos actually look more like the low-sloped shapes of the Hawaiian volcanos and the volcanos on Mars. These have low slopes because they are constructed from layer after layer of thin, runny lava.
  • Can they see all three flows? Did any flows completely cover up other flows?
  • Can they see exactly where each flow went? No, some of the later/younger flows probably covered the older/earlier flows.
  • Did the second and third volcano flows go exactly on top of the first flow? Probably not.
  • There are several things that might have caused them to flow differently. Can they name a few? Earlier flows helped to divert or direct later flows. Some flows had more lava.

5. Invite the teams to exchange volcanos. Can the new team determine which flow came first? Second? Third?

7. Invite the teams to use the straw sections to collect core samples. Geologists collect cores to determine what is below the surface, how thick layers are, and how far layers may extend. Each team may choose 3 locations on their volcano from which to collect a core sample.

  • What questions might they want to address? Perhaps they want to know how many layers there are, which layers are where, and how far a layer may be from the volcano caldera.
  • How might they use their few core samples to determine answers to these questions?

8. Once the teams have collected the core samples, ask them to share their discoveries.

This activity has been modified from Lava Layering, an activity in Exploring the Moon: a Teacher's Guide with activities for Earth and Space Sciences, NASA Education Product EG-1997-10-116-HQ by J. Taylor and L. Martel (


Events and Opportunities

Explore! Health in Space Web casts December 6, 2007–March 4, 2008
Hear ye! Hear ye!

All Explore! trainers attending Health in Space Web casts will be entered into a drawing to receive a SkyTellers DVD or a $200 voucher for the purchase of materials for your program!!
Two $200 vouchers and two SkyTellers programs will be raffled in December. (You must be present for both parts of the Web cast to win.)  Web casts in December will be broadcast on the 6th and the 13th. If you are an Explore! trainer, but have never experienced Health in Space, or if you have been to a Health in Space training workshop and would be willing to share your insights and experience with others - we  welcome you to join us! Health in Space explores challenges to the human body when living and working in space.

Did you know that you get taller in space?  That your head swells?
That your bones and muscles begin to deteriorate?

Learn about the health challenges astronauts face and how NASA researchers help astronauts stay healthy in space. Health in Space is offered as a two-part Web cast, each 90-minutes, one week apart. The Web casts will be repeated monthly through March. For more information or to make your reservation, contact Becky Nelson ( 281-486-2166.

It's fun! It's free! It's for the children!


Workshops and Courses

Free Online Astronomy Workshops for EducatorsPhoto of teachers working with clay models during a workshop.
Astronomy from the ground up's next FREE online workshop is for science, nature center and museum educators!  Training is through e-mail, videochat, and telephone.  Participants get a free toolkit, learn fun techniques for presenting astronomy and interpreting current events, and become part of the growing Astronomy from the Ground Up community, with access to ongoing resources and support. The next online course is scheduled to begin January 10-Febuary 7th with another one starting Febuary 21st - March 13th.


Photo of cliffs of Hawaiian island.

Geoscience on the Big Island of Hawaii
A week-long summer professional development seminar , including observations of active volcanoes and molten rock, and faults along the volcano's slopes, Pleistocene glacial deposits and soil layers, corals, and black, green and white sandy beaches. A lesson-plan approach is emphasized in the field exercises. All sessions are conducted by scientists with experience teaching.


Photo of teachers in activity at McDonald Observatory.Summer 2008 Workshops at McDonald Observatory
McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of West Texas offers a unique setting for teacher workshops.  Tours of the telescopes, discussions with the research astrophysicists in residence, and nighttime observations are an integral part of every workshop experience. Inquiry-based activities are aligned with science and mathematics TEKS and TAKS. Deadline for applications is February 15, 2008 for the grant funded workshops.


Mission News and Science

Mission News and Science

Quasars Create Heavy Elements to Seed the Early Universe
Modified from UNIVERSE TODAY

artwork depicting a quasar propelling dust into the cosmos

An artist's depiction of a quasar propelling dust into the Cosmos.

The Spitzer Space Telescope has found evidence of dust ejected from quasars billions of light-years away. This dust is a mix of ingredients that make up glass, sand, marble and even precious gems, perhaps forming more complex molecules, and even life.

Astronomers have long known that elements heavier than iron are generated in supernovae, as enormous stars explode and fling these new materials out into the galaxies. Many presumed that the early Universe had little to no dust, and consisted almost entirely of hydrogen and helium gas, with no elements heavier than lithium. Astronomers have now discovered dust pouring out of supermassive black holes in the early Universe. Known as quasars, and bright enough to be seen clear across the Universe, these actively feeding black holes are very messy, ejecting more material out in polar jets than they're actually able to consume. It now appears that both supernovae and quasars work together to seed galaxies with heavier elements and complex molecules.


Photos of dark openings--possibly caves--on Mars

A montage image of the "Seven Sisters"--seven dark openings into cavenrous spaces on the slopes of the Martian volcano, Arsia Mons.

Caves on Mars
Modified from
NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft has discovered entrances to seven possible caves on the slopes of a Martian volcano. Researchers found very dark round features ranging in diameter from about 328 to 820 feet. Using Mars Odyssey's infrared camera to check the daytime and nighttime temperatures of the circles, scientists concluded that they could be windows into underground spaces.
Just as deep caves on the Earth maintain a consistent temperature throughout day and night and seasons, caves on Mars would have less of a temperature change than the surrounding land. From day to night, temperatures of the holes change only about one-third as much as the change in temperature of surrounding ground surface.

The discovered holes, dubbed "Seven Sisters," are at high altitudes on the planet, on a volcano named Arsia Mons. The deep holes may have formed as underground stresses around the volcano created faults, opening spaces beneath the surface. The observations have prompted researchers to find other openings to underground spaces at lower elevations that are more accessible to future missions to Mars.

Artist's vision of the binary system of the black hole and massive star, and a photo of the Chandra data.

Artist's vision of the binary system: the red accretion disk of a black hole orbiting a blue supergiant star. The insert's blue glow is the data from the Chandra Observatory, with the white stars from Gemini around it.

Massive Eclipsing Black Hole
Modified from
Astronomers have observed an exceptionally massive black hole orbiting a huge companion star. M33 X-7 is the first black hole in a binary system observed to undergo eclipses. Because of the eclipses, astronomers have been able to calculate highly accurate estimates for the mass of the black hole and its companion. The resulting measurements have intriguing implications for the evolution and ultimate fate of massive stars.

The black hole is part of a binary system in a nearby galaxy about 3 million light-years away. Astronomers have measured the mass of the black hole as 15.7 times that of the Sun. This makes M33 X-7 the most massive stellar black hole known. A stellar black hole is formed from the collapse of the core of a massive star at the end of its life. The companion star also has an unusually large mass, 70 times that of the Sun!