When I was a kid, I had a junior detective wristband. (Maybe you did, too.) It was colorful and plastic, the kind of toy you’d find in a cereal box. And it had a tiny plastic magnifying glass, because every junior detective needs to be able to see tiny things in detail. That’s how you solve mysteries.

I magnified ants. And flower pollen. And feathers. I magnified almost everything I could find. And the close-up views from that tiny magnifying glass offered some amazing lessons about the world. (Wow — butterfly wings have scales!)

In nanotechnology, scientists do the same thing, but they have much better toys.

Nanotechnology is the study of things at the atomic and molecular levels. Very, very, very tiny things. Scientists use specialized microscopes and other laboratory instruments for nanotechnology research. They’re solving mysteries.

nanotubeTake this model of a nanotube, for example. It represents one way that carbon atoms can be structured. Nanotubes are very strong, maybe one hundred times as strong as steel. They’re very tiny, just a fraction of the width of a human hair. They conduct heat and electricity. Scientists are still learning about the properties of carbon nanotubes and about the ways we can use these structures.

If you’re curious, you’ll have a rare opportunity this weekend to take a behind-the-scenes peek into nanotechnology research on the UNC campus. Morehead is hosting NanoDays on Saturday, March 27.

You can learn more about nanotechnology with hands-on activities for the family. Discover where you can find examples of nanotechnology in your own home. Tour research labs with scientists from the UNC Department of Physics and Astronomy (that’s where the cool research toys — I mean, laboratory instruments — live).

It’s fun, and it’s free. Come check out NanoDays.

Junior detective wristbands might be the coolest cereal box toy ever.

Todd Boyette and other members of the North Carolina delegatiion with their Chinese counterparts

Todd Boyette (3rd from right) and other members of the North Carolina delegation with their Chinese counterparts

Greetings from Beijing, China! I am traveling with 11 other North Carolinians as guests of the Beijing Association of Science and Technology. We actually make up the entire U.S. delegation, which is a tremendous opportunity for North Carolina. Traveling with me are: Dr. Fran Nolan – leader of the delegation and Executive Director of the NC Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative; three members of the NC House of Representatives – Susan Fisher (Buncombe), Maggie Jeffus (Guilford) and Joe Tolson (Edgecombe, Wilson); Robin Bergeron of Guilford County Schools; Becky Grant – CEO of Greensboro Children’s Museum; Lew Ebert – President of the NC Chamber of Commerce; and four high school student-winners of the NC International Science Challenge – Shilani Chudasama, Victoria Jones, Victoria Melbourne and Chelsea Sumner.

One of the first items of business once we arrived in Beijing was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Beijing Association of Science and Technology. This is a five-year agreement that formalizes a training and exchange relationship between the United States and the Beijing Association of Science and Technology (BAST). Morehead Planetarium and Science Center joins the NC Science, Math and Tecnology Center and the Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative to form the U.S. side of the partnership. This is a tremendous opportunity for Morehead. The MOU was signed during a formal signing ceremony at BAST Headquarters. I have attached a picture of the participants right after signing the agreement. I look forward to utilizing this partnership to enhance our efforts at Morehead.

Todd Boyette has been director of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center since 2006.

Orion the Hunter

Orion the Hunter

How well can you see the stars from where you live? Through March 16, you and your family can collect scientific data right outside your house (or anywhere you choose) for GLOBE at Night, an annual worldwide project to measure light pollution.

Participating is easy:

1)  Go outside at least an hour after sunset between now and March 16, and wait 10 minutes or more for your eyes to adjust to the dark.

2)  Find the constellation Orion, and compare what you see with the GLOBE at Night magnitude charts.

3)  Go online to report your results.

The Globe at Night Web site provides helpful activity packets with printable magnitude charts. A few weeks from now, the organizers will release a map of light pollution levels worldwide—including your data point.

To experience skies that may be darker than at your home (or maybe not, depending on where you live), join Morehead Planetarium and Science Center for a skywatching session. We’ll be at Little River Regional Park on Friday, March 19, and at Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at Jordan Lake on Saturday, March 20. Both sessions are 8 to 10 p.m. and are weather permitting.

You can also visit Morehead at 8 p.m. on either April 23 or 24, when we will use our new technology to present the live planetarium program “Our Vanishing Night.” Telescope observing will follow, weather permitting.

Amy Sayle is Morehead's Science 360 manager. One year while leading a stargazing seminar at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, she and the seminar participants documented a sky of limiting magnitude 6 at Ocracoke Island, NC. How dark is YOUR sky? Please leave us a reply.

Phobos

The Mars Express orbiter will skim the surface of Phobos at a distance of just 50 km on March 3, 2010. For comparison, this image of Phobos, taken by NASA, was captured at a distance of 9,670 km.

Mars has two moons: Phobos and Deimos, named for the minor Greek deities Fear and Panic (what could go better with a planet named after a god of war?). On March 3, Mars Express – a Mars orbiter operated by the European Space Agency (ESA) – will set a record for the closest-ever flyby of Phobos when it skims over the moon at a distance of only 50 km (about 30 miles). ESA scientists hope that by venturing so close to the rather lumpy moon, Mars Express can gather data that will help answer lingering questions about Phobos.

Earlier Mars Express flybys have determined the mass and volume of Phobos, using a variety of instruments. Surprisingly, the data suggest that parts of Phobos may actually be hollow. The March 3 flyby should help to either confirm or negate this idea.

Another goal of the flyby is to determine the internal chemical composition of Phobos, in the hopes that such information may help scientists determine the origin of this moon. There are three current theories about Phobos: one, that it is a captured asteroid; two, that it formed at the same time and from the same basic materials as Mars; and three, that it was formed from debris shot into Mars’s orbit by a large meteorite strike.

The Mars Express orbiter is only one of many experiments designed to discover more about our planetary neighbor. If you would like to know more about past, present, and future Mars exploration, come see the live show Mission to Mars, one of two Science 360 shows on MPSC’s spring schedule.

Casey Rawson is the Science Content Developer for Science 360. In case you're wondering, Deimos has also been explored at close range: in 1977, the NASA Viking Orbiter II flew over this moon's surface at a distance of only 30 km.


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