On May 25, 2013, the York Universe team (represented by Jesse Rogerson, Ryan Marciniak, Lianne Manzer, and Paul Delaney) in collaboration with York alumni Julie Tomé, attended the 2nd annual What’s Up in Space? event organized by the AstroNuts Kids Space Club.
The AstroNuts are a very energetic group of children aged 8-12 that meets once month at their Home Base in Newmarket, Ontario. For each meeting, Ray Bielecki (the club manager) organizes a range of science programming from one of Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM). Ray will often invite presenters to help him engage with the children. The club’s website describes the group best: “We are not a registered company, not a charity, not an association, not a not-for-profit, not a for-profit, we are ‘just’ an amazing local fun kids space club.”
The What’s Up in Space? event was designed to extend the reach of the AstroNuts to a broader audience. The AstroNuts can only maintain a relatively small group of club members, but for one day every year, Ray Bielecki and the AstroNuts team are able to engage hundreds of children at a time. York Universe and the York University Astronomical Observatory have presented at the event in the past, and we were all so excited to be invited back.
An Impressive List
This year the event boasted over 15 different presenters and attendees who volunteered their time to engage children with space science. Among many others, the list of presenters included Canadian astronaut Dr. Dave Williams, a skype visit from writer/rocket scientist Homer Hickam, the FLL Championship Robotics team, Luke Gustafson writer of Star Acer Academy, and Teressa Black, director of the Challenger Learning Centre at the Ontario Science Centre. Each presenter brought their own interesting and engaging presentation covering topics from space engineering to backyard telescope astronomy.
It would be impossible to cover in any detail the amazing presentations we saw over the afternoon; instead, we will showcase only the two presentations that the York Universe team participated in.
A Planetary Conjunction
Professor Paul Delaney, director of the York University Astronomical Observatory, lecturer, and co-host of York Universe, created a presentation on the planetary conjunction of Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter that was to occur on May 26, 2013 (the day following the What’s Up in Space? event). A planetary conjunction is when multiple planets pass by each other in the sky. In this case, the three planets listed above were within 3 degrees of each other. If you were to hold your fist at arm’s length, you would be able block all three planets from your view. A conjunction of this nature happens rarely, and was something that Paul thought important to inform everyone about.
Paul, being the engaging presenter he is, used the conjunction as a reason to get the event attendees interested and excited about backyard astronomy. Paul began first by getting the children yelling and screaming. He would start by presenting the children with an image showing a small section of a planet in our solar system, and then ask if they knew which planet it was. There were no shortage of great guesses from the audience. After hearing many guesses, Paul would then post the full image of the Planet. This was done for each of the three planets in the conjunction, finally ending with an image of the Planetary Conjunction to-be.
Not only did the audience get to yell and scream, and be excited about astronomy, they were also armed with the knowledge of something about to happen in their night sky. It is empowering for anyone to be able to go out and look at the night sky and be able to recognize something they were shown before. We hope many little astronomers took the opportunity to go look at the conjunction of Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter!
Team Astronomy takes on Orion
Next up was Jesse Rogerson, Ryan Marciniak, Lianne Manzer, and Julie Tomé (dubbed ‘Team Astronomy’ by Ray Bielecki). At What’s Up in Space? 2012, we presented on the sizes of the planets in our solar system. Using cardboard, we made cutouts of the planets from the smallest (Mercury) to the largest (Jupiter), keeping the relative sizes of the cutouts equal to the relative sizes of the planets. As a result we had a planet Mercury that was 7 cm wide, and a planet Jupiter that was 200 cm wide. For the presentation we got all the children to name the planets, and put them in the proper order from the Sun.
This year we wanted to top that presentation. Our main goal when planning out our presentation was to come up with an activity that was not just interactive but actually active. This can be tough with a subject like astronomy, after all, for the most part we cannot actually touch what we’re studying – our 5 senses reduced to 1. After some brainstorming (galaxy rotation, lunar/solar eclipses, making comets) we decided to illustrate that our night sky is 3 dimensional, that the constellations as we see them are, well, just that – as we see them – someone on a planet orbiting a distant star would not see the same configuration of stars on their night sky, because stars do not lie on a 2 dimensional plane. Some stars are close to us, some are far; it is only our view point from Earth that allows us to see the constellations we all know.
In order to accomplish this demonstration of 2D vs. 3D, we decided to create a model of a famous constellation that could be viewed from many angles. Our equipment list was pretty simple: PVC pipes, balloons, lots of tape, and a camera with a tripod. Balloons were used to represent the stars and were fixed to the top of the pipes, which had been cut to the appropriate lengths. We marked on the floor the locations where each PVC pipe should be placed so that when held upright a picture could be taken to show that from one spot the balloon-stars made up the constellation of Orion.
We chose Orion because it is very well known, and very easy to see both in the country and in the city. Lucky for the team, this is a demonstration that has been done before. It is common for astronomers to want to explain the 3D nature of constellations, so we were able to borrow from the work of others. More specifically, in our research we found a paper entitled ‘The Orion Constellation as an Installation’ by Dr. Daniel Brown of Nottingham Trent University. In the paper, Dr. Brown lays out the different 3-dimensional locations of each of the 7 major stars in the Orion constellation. The model stretched 10 meters by 2 meters on the floor, and 2 meters vertical.
The fun part was presenting. Ryan was able to introduce the idea that stars are different sizes and at different distances in the Universe:
Lianne gave us a more in-depth look at the constellation of Orion:
Jesse chatted about vantage points and the stories of constellations. Finally, Julie gathered up 7 volunteers to hold our stars, and we all made sure they stood in the proper places. Here’s what that looked like from the side:
and here’s what that looked like through the lens of Julie’s camera:
Julie was able to get this picture put up on the screen immediately, so both the volunteers and the rest of the audience were able to see, first hand, that the constellations we see are only a result of our view into the cosmos.
It is very important to engage children with the STEM subjects, as these offer a way of challenging children to think, creating productive problem solvers and critical thinkers, developing an appreciation for how science works (and who does it), and creating an overall investment in the future. Professor Paul Delaney and ‘Team Astronomy’ all embrace these ideas, and look for as many opportunities to engage as possible. We thank Ray Bielecki and the AstroNuts for taking the time put together an event that brings together so many great presenters/researchers/volunteers and reaches so many children. We look forward to next year.
…and oh ya, there were Storm Troopers there!
A great shot. See you all next year!
AstroNuts Kids Space Club – homepage (and links therein)
UniverseToday.com – Rare Spectacular Triple Planetary Conjunction Wows World
The Physics Teacher – The Orion Constellation as an Installation
YouTube Video – The Orion Constellation in 3D
Star Acer Academy – homepage
David Thompson Astronomical Observatory – homepage
Astronomy Picture of the Day – Orion on Film