Space Rocks!

Posted by Mike Reynolds
on Thursday, January 27, 2011

Astronomy outreach continues to grow in the United States and elsewhere as professional and amateur astronomers discover the pleasures of sharing their passion with others. In the United States, one major avenue of support for astronomy clubs and societies is the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Night Sky Network.

Space Rocks allows participants to determine which items are meteorites, and which are not, among other activities. Photo by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific/Night Sky Network.
This resource is a nationwide coalition of astronomy clubs that brings the science and inspiration of NASA’s missions to the public. Begun in 2004, Night Sky Network provides outreach materials for astronomy clubs and a forum for those involved in outreach to exchange ideas and learn from each other.

Some of the materials Night Sky Network develops and distributes are ToolKits. These lessons, designed and thoroughly tested by amateur astronomers, make it easy for users to expand their role in public star parties, club presentations, school visits, and youth or community group events. And the most-recent Night Sky Network ToolKit is titled Space Rocks. You guessed it: This one emphasizes those pesky chunks of rock and metal — whether in space or on Earth’s surface.

Space Rocks covers topics like asteroid-hunting, scaling the asteroid belt, craters on Earth and the Moon, and identifying meteorites versus “meteorwrongs.” Included activities allow astronomy clubs and societies to bring unexpected aspects of astronomy to their outreach programs. Each kit contains numerous links to outstanding websites (like the Dawn or WISE missions) that include additional activities and support materials. And the beauty of the Space Rocks activities is that enthusiasts now have a solid cloudy night activity — or one for several nights. For example, “Asteroid Hunters” gives participants an opportunity to see how scientists discover asteroids and how fast they appear to move. The lesson also covers infrared detection of asteroids (and why this is becoming the most-successful discovery method), and the WISE mission’s detection of asteroids.

Hands-on activities help students learn about meteorites. Photo by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific/Night Sky Network.
Movies and other resources often portray the asteroid belt as an area of our solar system packed with irregularly shaped bodies; think of Star Wars and the Millennium Falcon’s famous chase scene. But nothing could be further from the truth, and the Space Rocks activity “Scaling the Asteroid Belt” demonstrates how empty it really is. Other activities let participants build scale models of the first 10 asteroids discovered. In this activity, Earth is 1 meter in diameter and dwarf planet Ceres is about 7.3 centimeters across.

“Craters on Earth and the Moon” explores the dynamics of cratering and why these bodies appear so different, impact-crater-wise. Activities include discovering what occurs when an impactor strikes a rocky body, the creation of rays, and differences between lunar and terrestrial impacts.

The “Asteroid Hunters” activity included in Space Rocks helps students learn about minor planets. Photo by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific/Night Sky Network.
The “Meteorite or Meteorwrong” activity is exactly what you’d think: Is what you’re looking at a meteorite or not? The Space Rocks ToolKit includes a whole specimen and a slice of two classes of meteorites — iron (from the Sikhote-Alin fall in Russia) and stone (NWA 868, from Northwest Africa). There is also a Chinese tektite, and a good selection of meteorwrongs: pumice (a porous volcanic rock), lodestone (a naturally magnetized piece of the mineral magnetite), a fossil (a piece of a turtle shell fossilized in Florida creeks, called “Turtle Skutes”), pyrite (a naturally occurring mineral), and marble (a metamorphic rock made of calcite or dolomite). Many of the meteorwrongs are the classics — people have sent me more pumice and loadstone meteorwrongs than I care to count.

This activity also includes a magnet (recalling one of the initial checks for any meteorite) and a magnifying glass. Participants sort the specimens in the Space Rocks collection into three categories: meteorites, meteorwrongs, or “not sure.” The activity provides an overview of basic meteorite and tektite classification.

One of the Space Rocks activities discusses craters on the Moon and on Earth. Photo by Tye Farrell of Arizona’s Astronomers of Verde Valley
The Meteorites–Meteorwrongs activity also addresses a number of misconceptions. Among them are that meteorites are hot when they strike the ground (a misconception often perpetuated by Hollywood), meteorites are easy to find, and all meteorites are worth a lot of money.

By teaching people about chemicals, including amateur astronomers involved in outreach activities, the kit helps educate and inspire people about meteoritics.

Night Sky Network’s Space Rocks activity is available online as a PDF download even if your club isn’t a member of the Night Sky Network. (Of course, I encourage you to join.) For more information on the Night Sky Network or Space Rocks, go to http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov.

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