Sunday Funday comes to HMNS with Mixers & Elixirs Pluto Pity Party

Extend your Sunday Funday to the Houston Museum of Natural Science August 24 and raise a glass to the infamously demoted Pluto at our Pluto Pity Party!

Come to Mixers & Elixirs and remember the good ol’ days when we had nine planets as you enjoy live music from the Space Rockers and drinks at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Planet or not – Pluto, you’ve stolen our hearts.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a… DWARF PLANET?!

Eight years later, the news of Pluto’s status downgrade from planet to dwarf planet still stings. We have an emotional connection to our solar system — as we should! This is our “cosmic neighborhood” and we are rightly very attached to our neighbors, all orbiting the same brilliant star.

But let’s look at it a different way, shall we?

Maybe this change for Pluto provides for us a way to celebrate how big and diverse our solar system really is! Not only do we have planets — big and small, gaseous and rocky — we have moons, rings, asteroids, comets, and yes, dwarf planets. So it’s not that Pluto isn’t a part of our solar system, it’s just in the outer reaches of the sun’s great gravity.

It’s like we thought Pluto lived in the heights, but then we found out it’s actually living outside the loop… It’s still a part of our community, just a little further away.

So no worries, folks, let’s keep our attachment to Pluto! It’s still cool (literally) and a testament to how much we can learn about our place in the cosmos.

 In that spirit, come down to HMNS Sunday, August 24 and celebrate Pluto!

Pluto’s demotion has been great for one thing though: the internet

 

And if you want some Pluto swag for the party, you’re all set with the Museum Store

It’s ice, ice baby?

I recently came across an article with the title of combustible ice, also called “fire ice.” I realize that anything can be made to combust.  I never thought of ice doing that.  My next thought was that ice might mean something else than frozen water.  Diamonds are referred to as ice because of their ability to transfer heat. The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can be a hot topic in some quarters.  Snow Crash has linked frozen water with the mes collected by Enlil.  As you can see I was very curious about the article.

It turns out the ice referenced in this particular article is hydrocarbons frozen in ice crystals.  It is natural gas (mostly methane) that has been trapped in the crystalline structure of water as it froze.  We can easily imagine the liquid methane atmosphere of Neptune or methane sheets and snow on Makemake (a newly discovered plutoid in the Kuiper Belt) and Eris, but it is not something we think about on earth. 

Methane needs to be below -297 degrees Fahrenheit for it to become solid, but because it is inside the ice, the “fire ice” can remain stable at much higher temperatures (around 29 degrees Fahrenheit).  Methane is in the atmosphere of all the gas giants in our solar system and might be found in ice form on the dwarf planets like Pluto (we’ll have to wait for the New Horizon’s fly by in 2015.  None of the extrasolar planets seem to have methane in their atmosphere (although HD 209458 b might have water vapor in its atmosphere).

The “fire ice” on Earth usually forms deep under the surface of the oceans – down hundreds of meters into the dark depth.  That’s not the only place on the Earth where it is. China has reported that it has found this “fire ice” in Qinghai Province. 

Methane hydrates have been known since the 1960’s, but they have not been in the news much.  You might ask why.  The early known methane hydrates despots were deep on the ocean floor and mining for them was too expensive for what they could sell the methane for.  With the current rise in the cost of fuel, the “fire ice” is looking more attractive.  Japan plans to have a full scale mining operation up and running by 2016 and China is putting aside nearly a billion dollars on research of mining and using “fire ice”.

So how does “fire ice” differ from the run of the mill natural gas?  Well, they don’t.  Hydrates are routinely formed during the refining process.  The hydrates can cause damage to the pipelines by blocking the flow.  Ethylene glycol (antifreeze) can be used to stop the hydrates from forming. 

Since methane hydrates are a form of natural gas, why are methane hydrates important?  One reason is that it is natural gas.  Natural gas is used primary in electrical generation in the US.  Natural gas burns cleaner then coal or petroleum.  Another reason the “fire ice” can be important is in transportation.  To ship natural gas around the world, it is common to change it from a gaseous form to a liquid.  This, very logically, is called liquefied natural gas.  It takes a lot of energy to cool the gas down to – 256 degrees Fahrenheit.  The “fire ice” remains stable at much higher temperatures, -4 degrees Fahrenheit.    

“Fire ice” might be cheaper to transport, but it will not be a “silver bullet” that solves all our energy needs.  For that there is no single, easy answer.


Happy Birthday George Observatory!

20 years ago, it was still the 80s. The Hubble Telescope had not been launched, nor returned the extraordinary images from the deepest regions of space that inspire such wonder today. Construction on the International Space Station hadn’t yet begun, and Pluto was still a planet.

Girl Scouts

And, 20 years ago today, the George Observatory was born. Since then, countless school children, aspiring astronomers, and people just interested in seeing the beauty of the stars and planets have visited the facility in Brazos Bend State Park.

For 20 years, kids have participated in simulated space missions by heading for outer space in our Challenger Learning Center. Visitors have gazed through our three telescopes, open to the public almost every Saturday night. Through our large 36′ Gueymard Research Telescope, visitors have been able to view the craters on the moon, all of the planets, comets, meteors, eclipses, and various stars and constellations. Using the telescope, a group from the Fort Bend Astronomy Club has discovered more than 400 asteroids – and named five of them. Come by on a Saturday night, and you’ll meet many of them – as they’re frequently on hand to share a look through their telescopes and a passion for observing.

Over the last 20 years, dozens of probes and satellites have been sent to scout nearby moons and planets. NASA has plans to study them in more detail, explore new masses, and is planning the completion of the International Space Station in 2011.

Who knows what the future of space holds for mankind? Supernovas exploding in the deep of space, space colonization, or even intelligent life on other planets. We fervently hope that the George will inspire kids to be a part of the future of science and space exploration, wherever that might lead them – and into an exploration of the unknown. We look forward to discovering the future of space and uncovering new mysteries along with you at the George Observatory.
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Book List: Astronomy

One of my favorite quotations is from the astronomer Carl Sagan.  “Somewhere something incredible is waiting to be known.”  I hope you will find something incredible in the HMNS book list  for April, featuring books about astronomy. 

Rainbow Guard
Creative Commons License photo credit: linh.ngân

Gazing at the sky, both during the day and at night, can provide endless hours of entertainment and awe.  Who has not lain on their back in the summer grass and watched the changing cloud formations?  The constantly moving shapes provide each person the chance to use their imagination.  “Do you see that tree?”  “What tree?  I see a bear.”  But at night things are different, as the sky is full of stars with patterns of their own.

A beautiful book about the night sky is Zoo in the Sky, a Book of Animal Constellations, by Jacqueline Mitton and illustrated by Christina Balit.  This exquisite book begins:

     
    “When the sun sets, darkness falls.  The stars appear one by one.  Then the sky turns
     to a picture puzzle.  What is hiding in the patterns of the stars?  Some people say they
     only see squares and squiggles, lines and loops.  But imagine hard, and the sky comes
     to life.”

Are you hooked?  I was. Ms. Balit’s colorful illustrations are incredible, and Ms. Mitton’s words provide the explanations.  Leo the Lionis pictured on the cover.  Ms. Mitton explains the constellation:

     “Leo the Lion is king of the beasts and lord of the sky.  In February and March he looks
     down from a throne high up the heavens.  Stars in his mane shine like jewels in a crown.”

Night sky
Creative Commons License photo credit: coda

You will also meet The Great Bear, the Little Bear, the Swan, the Fox, the Scorpion, the Wolf, the Bull, the Great Dog, the Hare, the Goldfish and the Flying Fish, the Whale, various birds and the Dragon.

Ms. Mitton has written numerous books on astronomy, but three other books similar to Zoo in the Sky are Once Upon a Starry Night: A Book of Constellations, Kingdom Of The Sun: A Book About the Planets, and Zodiac: Celestial Circle of the Sun, all beautifully illustrated by Ms. Balit.  Do yourself a favor and pick up one of these books—you might even decide to share it with children!

A totally different look at the heavens is provided by Tish Rabe who has written There’s No Place Like Space!, a Cat in the Hat Learning Library book.  Ms. Rabe begins in the style so familiar to all Dr. Seuss fans:

     “I’m the Cat in the Hat,
     and we’re off to have fun.
     We’ll visit the planets,
     the stars, and the sun!

Sound familiar? The Cat, his two willing passengers and Thing One and Thing Two visit all the planets, and you learn an interesting fact about each one.

     “Travel to Jupiter
     and you will find
     it is bigger than all
     other planets combined.”

You also learn a nonsense sentence to help remember the names of the planets in order: 

      “Mallory, Valerie, Emily, Meetzah just served us nine hundred ninety-nine pizzas!”

(Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto)  The book also contains a glossary and table of contents, and is a cute way to introduce the youngest astronomy fans to the wonders of the universe.

No trip to outer space could be more fun than a field trip with Ms. Frizzle’s class on the Magic School Bus.  In The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System by Joanna Cole, the class is attempting to visit the planetarium – which is closed for repairs.  As the bus is returning to school it tilts back and the roar of rockets is heard.  “’Oh dear,’ said Ms. Frizzle. ‘We seem to be blasting off!’” and another adventure begins.  Besides learning about weightlessness, the reader learns facts about the planets, sun and moon.  For example:

     “Earth’s clouds are white because they are made of water vapor.
     Venus’ clouds are made mostly of a deadly yellow poison called sulfuric acid.
     Mars looks red because there is a lot of rusty iron in its soil.
     The sky looks pinkish because of red dust in the air.”

Solar System
Creative Commons License photo credit: tortuga767

Although a wayward asteroid cuts Ms. Frizzle’s tether and the Magic School Bus zooms away with the children, the students and teacher are eventually reunited for the return to school.  Later, the class prepares a chart of planets listing the name, size, length of rotation, length of a year, how far from the sun, how many known moons and whether or not there are rings.  Although listed as a planet in There’s No Place Like Space, Pluto is not on the students’ chart because Pluto is explained as a plutoid, not a planet.

Like all Magic School Bus books, this needs to be read carefully with attention paid to each illustration.  For example, a student holding a ball and walking around a lamp illustrates a planet rotating around the sun.  Or a student standing on a scale shows the difference between weight on
Earth and weight on other planets. (If you weigh 85 on Earth, you weigh 215 on Jupiter or 14 on the Moon.)

And remember, day or night, your imagination can enable you to travel to the planets—and beyond where “something incredible is waiting to be known.”