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How does an eclipse happen?

Hello Dr. Universe: I was wondering, how does an eclipse happen?

– Susan, 13, San Francisco, CA

 

Dear Susan,

It just so happens the Great American Eclipse is coming up on Aug. 21, 2017. This solar eclipse will be the only one visible from across the lower 48 states in nearly a hundred years. When it happens, parts of the country will experience darkness for a couple minutes during the day. » More …

What do astronauts eat in space?

What do astronauts eat in space?

–Rhemi, 12, St. Louis, Mo.

Dear Rhemi,

Astronauts eat all kinds of different foods up in space. The food is often similar to what we have here on Earth. But in space, there’s very little gravity. There’s very limited refrigeration, too. On the International Space Station, the refrigerator is only about half the size of a microwave. That means scientists who prepare and package astronaut food have to do it in ways that take up very little room and don’t need to be kept cold. » More …

Why do we need stars?

Hello! My name is Daiwik and my question is “Why are stars in space? Why are they needed? Can they be made on Earth?” No one I know knows the answer to this. Can you find out for me?

– Thanks, Daiwik
P.S. You’re awesome!

Dear Daiwik,

If you are anything like me, you like watching the night sky. The stars we see are a lot like our nearest star, the sun. They are just much farther away. That makes stars look like small twinkly things instead of a big, furious thing like our sun. » More …

Kuiper Belt: What is it?

What is the Kuiper Belt? -Zaara A., 7, Deep Bay, Australia 

Dear Zaara,

You might say the Kuiper Belt is the frozen frontier of our solar system. Out beyond Neptune’s chilly orbit, this saucer-shaped region is home to Pluto, billions of comets, and other icy worlds.

“The Kuiper Belt is really the edge of knowledge,” said my friend and astronomy professor Guy Worthey when we met up in the Washington State University planetarium.

“Out there it’s a little dim,” Worthey said. “We are pretty far from the Sun.”

In fact, it’s about 3 billion miles away. Even at the speed of a jet airplane, it would take more than 680 years to travel from Earth to the outer solar system. Fortunately, spacecraft like NASA’s New Horizons can get there much faster.

Just last year, the world watched as New Horizons flew past Pluto and sent us the first up-close pictures of the dwarf planet. Now, it won’t be long before we head even deeper into the Kuiper Belt.

“Everything is going to be dark,” Worthey said. “But you’ll see these icy bodies. They’ll be of different sizes. There’ll be lots of little ones and some big ones.”

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 1.40.16 PMMany astronomers think there are 100,000 objects out there bigger than 60 miles wide, Worthey adds.

“They are sort of a dirty snowball composition,” Worthey said.

Just 15 years ago astronomers weren’t really sure if this part of the solar system even existed.

In the 1950s, Gerard Kuiper (KI-purr), a Dutch astronomer, was curious about comets, particularly where they were coming from and how they traveled through the solar system. He thought the outer solar system just couldn’t be empty.

About 40 years later, two scientists working at an observatory in Hawaii detected the first object in the Kuiper Belt aside from Pluto and its moon Charon. They had been looking for five years when they finally found an ice sphere more than 150 miles wide.

Ever since, astronomers have been using math and science to detect other distant objects. They’ve detected other dwarf planets like Pluto, including Eris, Haumea, and Makemake.

They’ve also found Plutinos that, like Pluto, are small worlds that have been caught in Neptune’s orbit.

“As you cruise by one of those things, they’ll look like spheres or worlds,” Worthey said. “They are quiet, they are on slow orbits.”

Astronomers are fascinated with these places for a couple of reasons. One is because the region may hold clues about the way solar systems form. Other scientists are particularly interested in the comets. Some wonder if some of these icy objects fell from the Kuiper Belt, and then melted in the Sun’s heat to form Earth’s oceans.

There’s also been a buzz about finding a new ninth planet in the Kuiper Belt or beyond. Though, there’s no proof of it yet, it’s an exciting prospect. If there is another planet in the Kuiper Belt, we’ll have to go find it with a spacecraft or a super huge, powerful telescope.

Sincerely,

Dr. Universe

Are aliens real?

Dr. Universe: Are aliens real? -Lily, 10, New York City, NY                                                                                          Is there life on other planets? -Heidi, Cincinnati, OH 

Dear Lily and Heidi,

Well, we don’t know for certain. Looking up to the stars at night, I’ve often wondered if alien cats are out chasing alien mice or taking naps on other planets.

My imagination aside, your questions are like those scientists are asking, too. And it’s no wonder we are so curious.

With billions of planets in our galaxy, including small Earth-like worlds, the possibility of life out there is an exciting thought to many people. So, humans have set out to look for planets that might support life.

In fact, this month scientists announced the Kepler spacecraft’s discovery of Earth’s closest cousin so far. Some are calling it Earth 2.0. It has a Sun just like Earth does and if it has a rocky surface like scientists predict, it might even be a good place to grow plants.

My friend Dirk Schulze-Makuch studies life in the universe as an astrobiologist at Washington State University. He explained that for life to exist on Earth it needs a few ingredients. It needs liquid water, just the right combination of elements, and a source of energy, such as our Sun. These are required for every living thing we know of, from bacteria to plants to intelligent life forms, like humans.

dru-hero-poseIntelligent life, said Schulze-Makuch, is especially rare.

“For 4.5 billion years, on our planet we’ve only had one species so technologically advanced,” he said. “That’s us.”

But the ingredients for life on Earth might not be the exact same for life on other planets, explained Schulze-Makuch.

He has studied thorny devil lizards in one of Earth’s driest desert environments to find clues about life on Mars. It can be hard for thorny devils to find liquid water in the desert, so they’ve adapted to their environment. They can grab water from the air and use special groves on their spines to get a drink.

Scientists wonder if, just as the thorny devils have adapted to their environment, life forms on other planets may also have adapted to their environments. Scientists also think about how organisms can survive in environments that aren’t like Earth’s.

Take a tiny living thing called the tardigrade. Astronauts, who observed these creatures hanging on to their space shuttle, learned the tardigrade could survive in extreme conditions of space without any kind of space suit.

“The tardigrade shows how amazingly inventive life is once it has originated on a planet,” Schulze-Makuch said. “Not only microbial life, but all life, including multicellular life.”

Schulze-Makuch thinks we will find microbes, such as bacteria or fungi, on other planets in the next ten to twenty years.

“We simply don’t know the answers,” he said. “But if it’s out there we’ll have to go find it.”

I’m keeping my paws crossed for a whole planet of cats. But finding even a tiny organism like a microbe would be a huge discovery. It would change our understanding of life as we know it.

Sincerely,

Dr. Universe

Have a question? Ask Dr. Universe. You can send her an e-mail at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.