09 October 2010

Where does space begin?

There's a really cool weather balloon experiment video going around...

Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

This is truly an awesome thing... but here's the question - did this balloon "reach space" as the Twitterverse and news commentators often suggested?

Let's look at another vision of this zone above the earth - 19-21 miles (30-34 km) above sea level...

"On Dec. 10, 1963, while testing an NF-104 rocket-augmented aerospace trainer, Chuck Yeager narrowly escaped death when his aircraft went out of control at 108,700 feet (nearly 21 miles up) and crashed. He parachuted to safety at 8,500 feet after vainly battling to gain control of the powerless, rapidly falling craft. In this incident he became the first pilot to make an emergency ejection in the full pressure suit needed for high altitude flights. "

from Wikipedia [cc]
How can our students decide? What does "space" mean? What does "atmosphere" mean?

And how can you introduce this discussion, a discussion with no clear answers, which you probably don't really know how to answer, into your classroom?

NASA's site has a couple of great resources - a flight data simulator and this little video, but maybe we need to challenge everyone in the classroom - a classroom of any age kids - with a few questions:

If, at 122 km above earth (75 miles) the Space Shuttle can begin to switch from using hydrogen thrusters (space control systems) to "aero surfaces" - that is, the wings begin to function, what does that suggest?

If the International Space Station flies at 278 km above the earth (173 miles), what does that suggest?

If meteors are burning up at about 90 km (55 miles), what does that suggest?

Pause here: Was the balloon in the top video a homemade spacecraft?

MIT students - who might be more exacting in language - called 93,000 feet "near space" a year ago...

...which was also the term Mr. Clapper's Chemistry class used...

Let's ask more questions then...

Is it oxygen which defines the line between atmosphere and space? Is it particles which reflect sunlight (giving earth its blue glow from space)? What does friction mean when we are speaking of "air"? Does a parachute depend on friction?

Can we experiment with friction from air, with aero surfaces, out on the playground?

What does friction look like outside the "atmosphere"?

And who began to figure this out? Where?

Pause again here: Was the balloon in the top video a homemade spacecraft?

The X-Prize winning SpaceShipOne went a bit over 100 km (62 miles) above the earth. Alan Shepherd, the first American "in space," went 116 miles (187 km) high. Yuri Gagarin, the first human "in space," went 105 miles (169 km) up. In the early 1960s the U.S. Air Force X-15 planes flew above 50 miles (80 km) 13 times and above 62 miles (100 km) twice.

What is 19 miles from your school? What is 50 miles from your school? What is 62 miles from your school? What is 116 miles from your school? Go out on the playground, create a 1 meter = 1 mile (or 1 km) scale, and look at the distances. Does that matter?

Now, you've got all sorts of math happening, atomic chemistry, physics, geometry, history, geography, and you've got to take advantage of all that.

But most importantly, you've let your students know that questions really don't have "right answers." That we humans are investigators. That we seek answers by looking widely. And your class will not be the same.

- Ira Socol

thanks to Mike Thornton for the question which began this conversation

1 comment:

Scratchie said...

Really enjoyed this post Ira as I first read about the homemade spacecraft in our online newspaper this week. Your questions really got me thinking as a teacher. Or should I have said facilitator/advisor as how can I teach this stuff? Let's explore and question together.

Geoff (@scratchie) from Australia