Teaching the Power of Wonder
Comet Lovejoy is passing by us right now. With good binoculars, you might be able to track it over the next few nights as there won’t be much moonlight.
You will need to look south in the constellation Taurus the Bull. You’ll find Taurus west of Orion the Hunter, whose belt of three stars is easy to locate. You can download a map of the night sky at http://www.skymaps.com/. Plus, you can learn more about Comet Lovejoy on Sky & Telescope magazine’s website at http://www.skyandtelescope.com/
Comets are balls of grit and ice thought to be nearly as old as the universe itself. One astronomer described a comet as “a dirty snowball.” They are roughly 25 percent dust particles and 75 percent ice, with a good measure of ammonia, methane, and carbon dioxide thrown in.
Many comets are born in the Oort Cloud, a cold, giant cloud of particles outside our solar system. Astronomers think that gravity from a passing star kicks a comet out of the Oort Cloud and into the sun’s gravitational field. Other comets might originate in Kuiper’s belt, a loose collection of dwarf planets, similar to Pluto, that ring the solar system out beyond Neptune.
Our best known is Comet Halley, named for the early scientist Edmund Halley. In the late 1600s, Halley used the secret mathematics of Sir Isaac Newton to learn how comets journey through space. Halley learned that comets don’t travel in straight lines, as most folks thought. Halley used just pen and paper to create a giant database of 24 comets that he saw through a telescope or read about in ancient books.
Halley found that the paths of three comets were actually very long ellipses, flattened ovals. Then he guessed that these three -- the Comets of 1531, 1607, and 1682 -- were all the same comet that showed up every 76 years.
Sure enough, in 1758, the comet again appeared. “Halley’s Comet” has returned steadily ever since. It appeared in 1835, 1910, and 1986. Mark your calendar for its next swing by earth in 2061. As for Comet Lovejoy, this is your last chance. It won't be back for 8,000 years!
"This book, is about a man, his physics, and activities—brought together to provide a lot of science fun. It starts with a timeline of Newton’s life, establishing the theme that biography, science, and historical changes are all connected. This is an ideal way to begin to discuss science in the context of society."
-- National Science Teachers Association
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We all know about the brave explorers Lewis and Clark -- but tomorrow Laurence Pringle is going to introduce you to an important member of their expedition that you may not have heard about.