Shifting the Earth: The Mathematical Quest to Understand the Motion of the Universe

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It would need to be solid for humans to stand on. It would also need to be the right distance from its sun to have the right temperatures and pressure to support water for humans to drink! Engineers and scientists do not let great distances stop them from exploring the universe, though. In fact, engineers have used the knowledge of the universe to design spacecraft to travel far distances away from our solar system.

Voyager 1 is the fist human-made spacecraft designed to leave our solar system to explore the Milky Way. Next time you look out at the distant stars in the night sky, remember that you may actually be looking at another solar system that has its own planets. Or, maybe even another planet that could or does support human life. Our "neighborhood" is our solar system, which in turn is part of a "suburb" in our local galaxy, which we call the Milky Way.

The universe contains billions of other galactic neighborhoods, made up of trillions of stars, nebulas, quasars, planets, moons, asteroids, comets, etc. With all those neighborhoods out there, we might well wonder if we have any neighbors. No one knows exactly how big the universe is, but some of the furthest distances measured are two pulsating stars called Cepheids, which are more than 65 billion light years from Earth.

Since light travels about 6 trillion miles 9. Refer to the activity The North Wall Star to give students an understanding of navigation in space and determining distances between stars. Some scientists speculate that the universe is infinite.


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Others think that it may have boundaries like a box, but they wonder what might be outside the box. Some scientists hypothesize the universe is a huge curved space, like a multi-dimensional Moebius strip that curves back on itself, making the universe an endless loop with no "inside" or "outside," both infinite and unbounded. The current theory of how the universe came into being is that somewhere between 10 and 20 billion years ago a huge explosion occurred that caused the universe to expand suddenly, projecting matter outward from the center.

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This theory, called the "Big Bang" theory, was first proposed in , by George LeMaitre, a Belgian priest and scientist. He based his theory on spectroscopic observations of the "red shift" of distant nebulae in the universe.

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Two years later, Edwin Hubble the Hubble telescope is named after him confirmed and expanded on these observations. The question is: Will the universe keep expanding or will it reverse directions and begin contracting again? Galaxies are clusters of billions of stars, nebulae, planets and other objects held together by gravity. They can range in size from 1, light years across to a million light years across. Some are shaped like spirals, others are elliptical, while others are called "irregular" or "peculiar" because they have no definite shape.

Scientists are discovering that black holes form the center of many if not most galaxies, including our own Milky Way. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is spiral in shape, contains more than billion stars, and is about 90,, light years across. A large bulge at its center contains many stars. Our solar system is comfortably situated in one of the arms of the spiral where the neighborhood is a little less "crowded," about 25, light years away from the center. In addition to stars, galaxies contain clouds of dust and gas known as nebulae. Nebulae give birth to stars as the dust and gas mostly hydrogen and are pulled closer and closer together by gravity until they start to spin.

As the atoms are compressed, heat energy is generated until the gas cloud gets so hot that nuclear fusion of the hydrogen atoms takes place and the cloud begins to glow, forming a protostar. When the protostar stops growing it becomes a full-fledged star. Stars may live for millions or even billions of years but they do not last forever. Students can learn more about how stars are composed of different light forms in the hands-on activity Building a Fancy Spectrograph.

For a time, the star is held in balance as the expansive energy of nuclear fusion counteracts the contractive force of gravity that would tend to pull the gases of the star inward. When the fuel of a smaller star, like our Sun, begins to be used up, it starts to shrink and becomes a "white dwarf. Larger stars have a different fate. They burn hotter and brighter for a longer time. Eventually nuclear fusion causes iron to form in the star.

The iron absorbs energy, making the star like a ticking bomb that eventually explodes to become a "supernova. The largest stars become black holes after they explode, collapsing under the pressure of the tremendous gravity created by the massive object. A black hole gets its name because its gravitational pull is so powerful that not even light can escape. The two main types of black holes are stellar and supermassive. Stellar black holes are formed when massive stars use up all their fuel and die, collapsing inward due to the pull of their own gravity.

Supermassive black holes have been detected at the center of many galaxies. We think that massive gravity at the core of the galaxy, where stars are closely packed together, causes the black hole to form. The reverse could also be true — the black hole causes the stars to become closely packed as they approach the event horizon of the black hole. Only after more and more black holes are detected and studied will we understand.

With the right instruments and equipment, black holes are proving to be fairly easy to detect because as objects fall toward the black hole, they get very hot and glow brilliantly.

What we see is actually the luminous gas cloud that surrounds the event horizon of the black hole, the donut-shaped zone of "no return. When students first hear about black holes often through science fiction films or video games , they may become concerned that they could be pulled into a black hole. Even if our Sun were able to become a black hole and that is impossible because it is not massive enough , a black hole only has a gravitational pull equal to the object that created it.

So, it would exert no greater pull on Earth than the Sun does. As far as supermassive black holes are concerned, one news report proclaimed that one was supposed to be headed our way, but miss us by 1, light years. If you multiply 9. Quasars are massive objects larger than our solar system that give off huge amounts of energy and reside in galaxies that have black holes.

Examining quasars may provide us with clues to how the universe was formed. Since they are billions of light years away from the Earth, when we look at quasars we are essentially looking billions of years into the past! Matter is usually something we can see and touch; it takes up space and has mass. So-called "dark matter" is one of the greatest mysteries in the universe because it cannot be seen. We only know it is there because it exerts a gravitational effect on objects nearby. The amount of matter the universe contains affects how much gravity it has, and the more matter, the more gravity to counteract the forces of expansion.

Engineers are helping scientists investigate black holes, galaxy formation, the evolution of the universe, the recycling of matter and energy, and the nature of "dark matter. In the process, they help us get closer to answering some of those unanswered questions. Why are some stars in our own galaxy apparently older than the universe itself? What happens to all the matter that gets pulled into a black hole? As the mysteries of space are solved and new questions arise; it is the challenge of engineers to continue developing even better technologies to help answer them. Have you ever looked outside at the dark sky on clear night?

What do you see? You may have seen millions of star. Now we understand that some of those stars may be other planets located way beyond our solar system. Some of those twinkling lights far off in the distance may even be another planetary system like our own. Are our eight planets the only ones out there? Answer: No, more than other planets have been observed. What kinds of questions do you have about the other planets, stars and galaxies in the universe? Engineers design ingenious tools for scientists to use when exploring space.

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What are two instruments that help scientists look for other planets? Answer: Spectroscopes and telescopes. How else do engineers help us explore space and the universe beyond our solar system? Answer: Engineers design spacecraft to travel great distances away from our solar system. Remember, next time you are outside looking at the night sky, think about how you may be looking at other stars with planets; maybe even planets where humans could live. Big Bang: The theory that the universe was created by a giant explosion.


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  • Doppler effect: An apparent shift in the frequency of a wave of electromagnetic radiation due to relative motion between the source of radiation and the observer. History of our galaxy's name: Before telescopes, the night sky stars looked like a blurry white streak across the sky. An ancient Greek myth called it a "river of milk. On a large sheet of paper or on the classroom board, draw a chart with the title "The Universe.

    Isaac Newton

    Fill out the K and W sections during the lesson introduction as facts and questions emerge. Fill out the L section at the end of the lesson. Tally the votes and write the totals on the board. Give the right answer. List all of the things they learned about the universe. Were all of the W questions answered? What new things did they learn? Cosmic Address : Have students write letters to NASA engineers with questions that they would like answered about the universe beyond our solar system. Have students create a cosmic address for their return address, such as:. Astronaut Musgrave, on the end of the remote manipulator arm, moves to the top of the Hubble Space Telescope to install protective covers on magnetometers.

    Astronaut Hoffman bottom of frame assists with telescope repair and maintenance tasks during five days of space walks. Have students assemble a gallery of images of the cosmos for a classroom display. Have students research to find out more about the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope system. Start by looking at a labeled diagram of the telescope. Assign teams of students to research different aspects and components such as mirrors, light shield, solar panels, instruments, guidance sensors, shuttle bay, communication, overall size and orbit path, advantages compared to large telescopes on Earth, etc , and report back to the class for a joint presentation so everyone learns about all aspects of this amazing telescope.

    Show the "Power of Ten" video to take students on a fascinating journey to explore their place in the cosmos, midway between quarks and stars. Borrow the video from the school media center or local library. For more hands-on activities about spectrography, see TeachEngineering's Spectrography unit. Zoom in on the spectacular Eagle Nebula image on page 1 of this lesson taken with the Hubble Space Telescope in Click on "About this Image" to learn what the colors mean. Includes an interactive feature, "Anatomy of a Black Hole. Anatomy of a Black Hole.

    Last updated November 5, Physicists use some basic terms when they look at motion. How fast an object moves, its speed or Velocity , can be influenced by forces. Note: Even though the terms 'speed' and 'velocity' are often used at the same time, they actually have different meanings. Acceleration is a twist on the idea of velocity. Acceleration is a measure of how much the velocity of an object changes in a certain time usually in one second.

    Velocities could either increase or decrease over time. Mass is another big idea in motion. Mass is the amount of something there is, and is measured in grams or kilograms. A car has a greater mass than a baseball. Simple and Complex Movement There are two main ideas when you study mechanics. The first idea is that there are simple movements , such as if you're moving in a straight line, or if two objects are moving towards each other in a straight line.

    The simplest movement would be objects moving at constant velocity. Slightly more complicated studies would look at objects that speed up or slow down, where forces have to be acting. There are also more complex movements when an object's direction is changing. These would involve curved movements such as circular motion, or the motion of a ball being thrown through the air.

    For such complex motions to occur, forces must also be acting, but at angles to the movement. In order to really understand motion, you have to think about forces, acceleration, energy, work, and mass.

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