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Ask Dr. Universe Earth and Sky

Dr. Universe: Why does oil on the street look like a rainbow? -Jorgos, 10, Bothell, WA

When it rains, sometimes we can see oil on the street rise to the top of puddles and spread out into a rainbow of colors. One of the main reasons we see color is because of light, said my friend Cigdem Capan, a physics instructor at Washington State University. She reminded me that when our eyes sense colors, we can trace those colors back to different wavelengths of light. Perhaps you can make some waves in the air with your hand. Make small, tight waves. Now make a big, wide waves. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Can a shadow make a shadow? – Aven, 7, Palouse, WA

Dear Aven, When we look around our world, we can find all kinds of shadows. One way we can explore the answer to your shadow question is with a little experiment. My friend Anya Rasmussen, a physics professor at Washington State University, told me all about it. First, you will need to cast your shadow on a wall. Rasmussen reminded me shadows form when an object—such as your body— blocks light and keeps the rays from reaching a surface—like a wall. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do we have seasons? -Bella, 9, North Carolina

Dear Bella,

It turns out seasons can be quite different depending on where you live. But no matter where you live, the reason for the seasons has to do with the way the Earth rotates.

To find out exactly why we have seasons, I talked to my friend Vivienne Baldassare, a physics and astronomy professor at Washington State University.

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Dr. Universe: How many black holes are in the galaxy and the universe? -Krisha, 9, New Jersey

Dear Krisha, While we can’t see black holes with our eyes, astronomers have figured out how to spot these objects in our universe. One astronomer who is really curious about understanding black holes is my friend Sukanta Bose, a researcher at Washington State University. First, he told me there are different kinds of black holes. Supermassive black holes can be millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun. We have a supermassive black hole in our own Milky Way galaxy called Sagittarius A*, which is pronounced as Sagittarius A-star. Read More ...

What is a tornado made of? - Alice, 6, Ames, Iowa

Dear Alice,

Have you ever felt a warm wind blow by you, followed by a cold gust of air? You can’t see it, but you can sense it on your skin. Invisible to you, winds mix together.

Usually, these winds are harmless. But under the right conditions, they can also be the main ingredients for a tornado.

To learn more, I chatted with Jon Contezac, Craig Oswald, and Joe Zagrodnik, a team of Washington State University scientists who are very curious about the weather.

To make a tornado, they explained, you need two big things: rising air and rotating air.

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What is a sinkhole? What causes one? - Kathrine, 12, Calgary, Canada

Dear Kathrine,

Sinkholes can be scary to think about. They don’t happen too often, but when they do, they can take people by surprise. The solid ground disappears, and a hole suddenly appears.

It might seem like sinkholes appear out of nowhere. But they actually need specific conditions to form.

To have a sinkhole, you first must have a cave.

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Where does the universe end? - Oriah, 8, Pullman

Dear Oriah,

When you look up at the night sky, it can feel like the universe is a big blanket of stars above you. But unlike a blanket, the universe doesn’t have corners and edges. Far beyond what humans can see, the universe keeps going. As far as humans know, it never stops.

When I saw your question, I went straight to my friend Michael Allen to learn more. He is a Senior Instructor of Physics and Astronomy at Washington State University.

The universe is bigger than the biggest thing you’ve ever seen. It’s bigger than the biggest thing this cat can imagine. It’s so big that even your question has more than one very big answer.

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Dr. Universe: Why does the wind blow? -Odin, 7, Mt. Vernon, Wash.

Dear Odin,

When the wind blows, it can do all kinds of things. It can help pick up tiny seeds and carry them away, so plants and flowers can grow in new places. It can push a big sailboat across an ocean. We can even harness the wind to make clean energy to power our homes and schools.

That’s what I found out from my friend Gordon Taub, an engineer at Washington State University. He is very curious about wind energy and told me more about why the wind blows.

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Dr. Universe: How do trees help the air? – Ella, 12

Take a big, deep breath. As you inhale and exhale, you can probably feel the air taking up space in your lungs. The air we breathe is made up of a few different things. It includes gases such as nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide—just to name a few. Animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. But in the plant world, it’s the opposite. Trees, plants, and even algae in the ocean, take in carbon dioxide from the air and, using the energy of the sun, transform it into the oxygen we all breathe. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What are shooting stars made of? – Erin, 11, Arkansas

If you are anything like me, you probably like watching for shooting stars in the night sky. A shooting star, or a meteor, is usually a small rock that falls into Earth’s atmosphere. When I went to visit my friend Michael Allen, a senior instructor of astronomy and physics at Washington State University, he told me a lot of shooting stars are no bigger than a pencil eraser. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What can I do to help stop ocean pollution? -Hailey, 10

It’s great to hear you want to help our oceans. After all, they do a lot for us. Life in the ocean provides much of the oxygen we breathe and is also a source of food for many animals, including humans. One of the most important things we can do to prevent more pollution is to keep our garbage, especially plastic, out of the ocean. That’s what I found out from my friend Richelle Tanner, a marine biologist and researcher at Washington State University. While a lot of plastic ends up in the ocean, it actually started under the Earth’s surface in the form of oil, leftovers of plants and animals that died long ago. Read More ...

How do volcanoes erupt? –Miles, 10, Tampa, FL

Wherever we find a volcano on the surface of our planet, we can find the source of an eruption beneath it. That’s what I found out from my friend John Wolff, a volcanologist at Washington State University. Our planet is home to all kinds of volcanoes that erupt in different ways. Some eruptions are quiet and continuous, with a slow flow of lava. Other volcanoes erupt explosively and can spew ash and lava hundreds of feet up into the sky. All of this lava has its start underground in the form of something called magma. Wolff said that scientists used to think there were large pools of hot liquid beneath volcanoes. Now we know it isn’t quite that simple. Magma is not really a liquid, but rather a kind of sludge or slurry. It helps to think of it kind of like honey. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do earthquakes happen? -Aescli E., 10, Utah

We’ve had a lot of earthquakes on our planet this year. Maybe you’ve learned about them from the news or felt one shaking up your own neighborhood. First, it is important to know a bit about the Earth’s outer layer, or crust. The crust is made of seven big pieces called “plates.” They are about 60 miles thick and sort of float on the molten rock beneath them. That’s what I found out from my friend Sean Long, a geology professor at Washington State University who knows a lot about earthquakes. Read More ...

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.

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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.

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Dear Dr. Universe: When will the next major earthquake be? Earthquakes really interest me and I want to know so I can be prepared when the next major quake happens. - Carmen, 11, Chowchilla, Calif.

Dear Carmen,

Our planet’s surface is constantly on the move. Sometimes this movement really shakes things up.

The Earth’s crust is made up 14 major pieces and dozens of smaller ones, called plates, that move in super slow motion. Earthquakes can happen when these plates suddenly slip past each other. They send out waves of energy that make the ground shake.

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Dear Dr. Universe: What causes lightning? -Monica, 10, Costa Rica

And while we’re at it, let’s answer these questions:
When lightning strikes the ocean, what happens to the fish? –Olivia, 12, Manchester, UK
Why is lightning attracted to metal objects? –Grant, 11, Pullman, Wash.
Why does lightning sometimes just happen in clouds? –Leo, 11, Cayman Islands
 
Dear Monica, Olivia, Grant, and Leo:
While you are probably not in the middle of an electrical storm right now, there are more than 1,000 happening at any given moment on our planet. They happen on Saturn, Venus, and Jupiter, too.  

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Dear Dr. Universe: What do planets have inside? -Rhianna, 10, Calif.

Dear Rhianna,

Each planet is a little different on the inside. And what’s inside a planet can shape what’s on the outside, too. That’s what I found out from my friend Steve Reidel, a geologist at Washington State University.

“Well, there’s the rocky planets,” he said. “Then there are the big, gas giants.”

Rocky planets, like Earth, are wrapped in a thick crust. Beneath Earth’s crust is the mantle. The mantle is quite solid, but it actually behaves more like a fluid. It flows and deforms. It’s similar to Silly Putty, but a really strong version of Silly Putty. It’s about 1,800 miles thick. It is also the main source of Earth’s volcanoes.

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Dear Dr. Universe: What exactly is climate change? How does it affect the way we live? –Pranav, 10, Melbourne, Fla.

Dear Pranav,

If you’re anything like me, one of the first things you'll do in the morning is check the weather. Sometimes it’s rainy and I’ll put on my rubber boots. Other days it’s really sunny and I’ll grab my sunglasses. When we look at the patterns of these weather conditions over a long time—sometimes over hundreds of years—we can learn about a place’s climate.

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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.

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Dear Dr. Universe: I was just wondering if there are any volcanoes on any other planets? Danny, 10, Kenmore, WA

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Dear Danny,

The answer to your question takes us out into our solar system and deep below the surfaces of other moons and planets.

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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 … » More …

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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 … » More …

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Dr. Universe: What materials would you use to make a rocket -Freya, Scotland

Dear Freya,

Whether it’s a model rocket you build in the backyard or one that launches a space shuttle, there are lots of materials you could use. So, when I saw your question I grabbed my lab coat and safety goggles, and zoomed over to my friend Jake Leachman’s lab. He’s a rocket scientist and engineer at Washington State University.

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What if gravity pulled up, instead of down? -Kyle, Cedar Lake, IN

Our universe would look so different, Kyle. You might not recognize it even if you could be here to see it. Unfortunately, there probably wouldn’t be a whole lot to see. I learned about this from Washington State University professor and physicist Matthew McCluskey, who studies the material world. He explained how gravity pulls together dust, gas, and little particles floating around space to make massive clumps of matter that form stars and planets. For example: planet Earth. Every particle in the Earth is pulling on you at this very moment--every single one. Read More ...