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Learning About the Universe

The International Space Station. The Mars Climate Orbiter. The Mars Polar Lander. Hot news topics are great vehicles to boost your child's interest in science. Why not use the current developments in space to launch a new family tradition? Once a week, choose an intriguing topic and have the whole family investigate it.

You can raise questions at school or work, pick a friend's brain, go to the library, or get online. At the end of the week, get together for a family debriefing. It's a great way to spend the dinner hour.

Below are some questions and suggestions, ranging from simple to complex:

  • What's the atmosphere like in space? (Hint: atmosphere becomes less dense with increasing altitude.)

  • What is oxygen? (Hint: a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that's a component of the atmosphere.) Try this experiment in oxygen combustion with a lighted candle: Cover it with a glass. What happens? Or float a candle stub in a glass of water. As candle burns oxygen, what happens to the water level in the glass?

  • How does a rocket work? (Hint: it's propelled by the ejection of gases produced by combustion. You can demonstrate the principle of thrust by blowing up a balloon and releasing it.)

  • What specific skills does an astronaut need in order to qualify for NASA? Physical prowess and endurance, of course. But what about academics? (Hint: Math skills are a must.)

  • What kind of research is going to be conducted aboard the International Space Station? (Hint: space walks; space robotics; the effect of weightlessness on plants and animals)

  • How far above the earth will the International Space Station orbit? How can you find out when it's going to be over your area? (Hint: The space station will be in a "low Earth orbit.")

  • What are the Mars Orbiter and Lander missions going to study? Can the things they're researching be done on Earth? (Hint: The general theme is "Volatiles and Climate History," with a focus on the climate and soil compostition of Mars.)

  • How do satellites figure out tomorrow's weather? (Hint: television and infared cameras can track the paths of tropical storms, hurricanes, and more.)

  • How can satellites help search and rescue missions on earth? (Hint: Search satellites watch for emergency beacons for airplanes, boats, and people in distress.)

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