During the week we performed several experiments that illustrate how chemistry is intimately tied to the science of the solar system, space travel, and outer space. Perhaps you might fit some of these ideas into your curriculum, or suggest additional activities not covered here that connect chemistry to the exploration of outer space. Several of our activities at camp involved showcasing the chemistry of various objects in the solar system, some of which we describe below. Figure 2.
Physics and chemistry of the solar nebula.
We stressed the idea that many aspects of the chemical composition of the Sun can be determined by studying the light emitted by the Sun. For example, the element helium was discovered to be on the Sun prior to it being discovered on Earth. The campers were then asked to predict what element was in the spectrum tube.
Students easily recognized that hydrogen was in the tube, even though they did nothing other than observe the light emitted from the tube using diffraction glasses. It was emphasized to campers that no direct chemical analysis was needed to make this determination, and that the composition of the Sun can similarly be determined by analyzing its light. We continued the process by having students observe, in turn, spectrum tubes containing helium, neon, sodium, and mercury. After observing each tube using the diffraction glasses, students were asked to predict which element was contained in the tube.
We extended the activity by conducting simple flame tests for sodium emits yellow light , copper emits green light , potassium emits lavender light , and lithium emits red light. We finished off this suite of demonstrations by having students predict that sodium was present in a pickle by running electricity through a pickle and observing the bright yellow emission characteristic of sodium Figure 3. This planet provided us with many connections to chemistry!
First, the clouds on Venus are comprised of concentrated sulfuric acid droplets, 3 and this fact has major implications for any space vehicles that humans might send to this planet. To allow students to observe the effect of acids on metal, we dropped pieces of zinc into a large test tube half-filled with 6 M HCl:.
Physics and Chemistry of the Solar System, Volume 87
The reaction is vigorous enough that the hydrogen produced can be ignited using a nozzle-nose lighter, a fact that campers thoroughly enjoyed. To give students hands-on experience with the effect of acids on metals, we allowed them to drop pieces of magnesium metal into vinegar. The reaction between the acetic acid in the vinegar and magnesium dissolved the metal:.
By adding a little bit of soap to the vinegar, small amounts of the hydrogen gas produced could be trapped and ignited with a lighter! See video below:. While carrying out these activities, we informed students that in some cases, space probes to Venus are being lined with Teflon to protect them from the acid droplets in the Venusian atmosphere. Second, the atmosphere of Venus is about times as thick as the atmosphere on Earth! We therefore used the thick atmosphere of Venus as a springboard to discuss the concept of gas pressure.
We found the can-crushing and egg-in-a-bottle demonstrations well-suited for this purpose.
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We also tried a fascinating experiment wherein a person is wrapped up to their neck and sealed tight in a large garbage bag, and the air is pumped out of the garbage bag using a vacuum cleaner. One of us TK tried this experiment Figure 4 and was amazed at the force pressing down on his chest as the vacuum pumped the air from out of the bag! Use caution if you try this experiment: be certain that the operator of the vacuum cleaner knows to turn off the power if the person in the bag signals they have had enough.
Figure 4. Finally, the average surface temperature of Venus is K, the highest of all the planets. Its surface is hot enough to melt many but not all metals. For example, zinc m. We heated samples of copper and zinc in the flame of a blow torch to show students what might happen to these metals on the surface of Venus. On the other hand, Mercury has no atmosphere. We also attempted to impress upon campers the relationship between atmospheric CO 2 and the average temperature on Earth, and the implications atmospheric CO 2 has on global climate change.
Earth is unique among the planets for several reasons, one of which is in that it contains copious amounts of water. Collections of these tiny water droplets are of course known as clouds. People always seem to enjoy observing the cloud that is produced when dry ice is placed in water, so we had campers do this to make their own clouds.
Another favorite is the demonstration of the formation of a cloud by rapidly dumping hot water on top of several liters of liquid nitrogen in a large barrel. A huge cloud results, and campers had a blast running through the ensuing cloud that formed Figure 5. Figure 5. Figure 5 - A large cloud forms when hot water is dumped on liquid nitrogen. Like Earth, the poles of Mars are capped with ice. Unlike Earth, the ice caps are Mars are made mostly of solid CO 2. Because dry ice does not melt but rather undergoes sublimation, the polar ice caps sublime in the summer and enter the Martian atmosphere.
In the winter, as much as one-third of the atmosphere on Mars deposits as solid CO 2 on the poles again! To show the effect of warmer temperatures during the summer, the baggie was removed from the liquid nitrogen and placed on a table at room temperature. When this was done, the crystals of dry ice sublimed, refilling the bag. Areas where chemistry is particularly important is in studies of our Solar System, where the bodies can have very interesting composition.
For instance, the Curiosity rover on Mars is carrying an instrument known as ChemCam. ChemCam was designed and built to answer questions related to Martian geology that all depend on chemistry: the type of rock, its chemical makeup, and the crystal structures within it. With instruments like this on board, Curiosity is able to perform like a rolling chemistry and geology lab to study and explore Mars much like human scientists would and wish they could!
Another area is looking at Molecular Clouds clouds with molecules in them from which it is believed that stars form. Karen was a graduate student at Cornell from She went on to work as a researcher in galaxy redshift surveys at Harvard University, and is now on the Faculty at the University of Portsmouth back in her home country of the UK. Her research lately has focused on using the morphology of galaxies to give clues to their formation and evolution.
She is the Project Scientist for the Galaxy Zoo project.
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