Science, Nature and Tech

What is the Orionid Meteor Shower?

This October Earth will be passing through the tail of Halley’s comet, which will mean a shower of meteors flashing across the night sky. Our science editor Sam Gouldson explains.

What is Halley’s Comet?

A comet is a lump of rocky particles, ice and dust all bound together like a dirty snowball. When the comet nears a star, its surface transforms from a solid to a gas. The star’s light shines through these gases and makes them visible to observers as a fuzzy cloud around the comet’s centre, and a tail streaming out behind.

Observations of Halley’s comet have been recorded since 240 BCE, but it was Edmond Halley (pronounced HAL-ee or HAY-lee) who first realised that the comet was returning to Earth periodically and must, therefore, be orbiting the same star that we do.

Until Halley’s calculations in 1705 it was believed that comets merely passed through our solar system; using his friend Isaac Newton’s new laws of gravity and motion he worked out that the comet appeared every 75-76 years. It still does – it was last visible from Earth in 1986 and will next be seen in 2061.

What does the Meteor Shower have to do with the Comet?

Although we won’t see Halley’s comet again for 45 years, its presence is still felt. Every October Earth passes through debris left behind when the comet’s surface melts; as the dust and particles come into contact with our atmosphere at speeds of up to 145,000 kilometres per hour they burn up. This is known as a meteor shower or shooting stars.

Why are They Called the Orionids?

Meteor showers are usually named after the constellation of stars that they seem to come from, although of course, they originate much closer to our planet. For example, the Leonids are seen close to the constellation Leo, while the Geminids are seen near the constellation of Gemini. The Orionids (pronounced o-RYE-on-ids), as you may have guessed, are seen close to the constellation of Orion.

The constellation Orion, named after the hunter from Greek mythology. The three stars in the centre are known as Orion's belt. (Image: NASA).

The constellation Orion, named after the hunter from Greek mythology. The three stars in the centre are known as Orion’s belt. (Image: NASA).

How Can We See Them?

This year the Orionids are visible from the 4th October to the 14th November, but they’re at their brightest and most frequent on the 21st and 22nd October between midnight and dawn. You’ll need to be outside so wrap up warmly, and find a spot that doesn’t have much light pollution – a hilltop or the middle of a park are usually good spots. Look towards the southeastern part of the sky where Orion is, and you could see up to 20 meteors per hour.

 

Still not sure what to look for? Check out these videos:

This one has time stamps that you can click.

 

Sam has also written about the differences between asteroids, comets and meteors

Featured image: Orionid meteor shower by John Flannery

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Travel

How to Stay Safe at the Beach

Although beaches are fun places they can also be dangerous, and you may have heard some stories in the news lately about people getting into difficulties when they’re in or by the sea. Our science editor Sam Gouldson, who lives on the Sussex coast, shares her tips for beach safety.

Go to a Beach with Lifeguards

lifeguard sign

 

Many beaches have lifeguards, who are trained to keep people safe whether they’re on the beach or in the sea. You can find out where these beaches are by searching the Good Beach Guide (for the UK), Irish Water Safety (for Ireland) or the ILSE (for Europe). Find out more about the RNLI Lifeguards in UK here.

Pay Attention to the Flags

Beach Safety

Beaches in the UK use a flag system to inform you of possible hazards. If there are red and yellow flags this means that there are lifeguards in that area and that it’s safe to swim.

A black and white chequered flag means that the area is for people using paddleboards, surfboards and kayaks, and that you should not swim there.

A red flag means that the area is dangerous and you should not go into the water for any reason. There may also be information boards and signs at the beach, and you should read these thoroughly.

Stay With Your Group

beach safety

If you stick with your family or friends you can all keep an eye on each other. Find somewhere distinctive to use as a base while you’re at the beach and agree where you’ll meet up if you get separated.

If there are younger children in your group make sure they’re with a responsible adult or older teen. Some beaches have a wristband scheme so that children can be easily identified and their group members contacted if they wander off; if the beach you’re visiting has one of these schemes, take part.

Learn About the Sea

beach safety

Different beaches have different conditions. The tide can come in much faster at one beach than at another, and you should always keep an eye on the water and which direction it’s flowing in. You can look up tide tables online so that you’re aware of when the tide is likely to turn and don’t get cut off from the shore.

Some beaches have dangerous features called rip tides, which are strong currents that can quickly sweep you out to sea without warning. Always check with the beach’s lifeguards if there are any areas that you should avoid – many beaches have a noticeboard to inform visitors about the current conditions.

Waves can also be dangerous, depending on how fast the water is moving and how steeply the beach shelves. Some beaches will have sharp rocks or other hazards that may not be clearly visible from the shore. Again, check the lifeguard’s advice before you go into the water.

If the weather is cool, consider wearing a protective suit to keep you warm in the water, as cold water shock can affect your breathing, blood pressure and heart rate.

Be Careful When Using Inflatables

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Inflatable toys and beds are designed to be used in swimming pools, not on open water. But if you do use them make sure there is an adult with you and that you’re in the lifeguarded area between the red and yellow flags.

You should stay near the shore and never use inflatables when there are big waves or an windsock is flying; these are signs that the wind is too strong.

Know What to Do If You Get Into Trouble

A photo by Pierre-Olivier Bourgeois. unsplash.com/photos/gfctvxvyvLk

If you find yourself in difficulties, stay calm. If the water is shallow enough for you to stand, wade through the water instead of trying to swim in it. Raise at least one hand in the air and shout loudly and clearly for help, and don’t try to swim against the tide because you’ll just tire yourself out.

If you have a board or an inflatable hold onto it; not only will it help you stay afloat it will also make you easier for rescuers to spot.

If you see someone who is in trouble in the water, stay calm. Alert the lifeguards, or if you can’t see them call the emergency services on 999 (in the UK) or 112 (anywhere in Europe).

Stay Safe in the Sun

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Although the sea can be dangerous, so too can the sun. Always use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, and re-apply frequently.

Keep your head and shoulders covered, wear sunglasses to protect your eyes and stay in the shade at the hottest part of the day (usually between 11am and 3pm).

For more information read “Why is too much sun bad for you and how does sunscreen work?”.

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Science, Nature and Tech

What is Juno?

There has been a lot of excitement about the Juno probe this week, but what is it and what is its mission?

What is Juno?

Juno is a spacecraft designed and operated by NASA, the US space agency. It was launched from Cape Canaveral on the 5th August 2011 and has taken almost 5 years to travel the 716 million kilometres to Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. Juno is 3.5 metres in height, and when its solar arrays are extended it’s more than 20 metres across. These arrays are covered in more than 18,500 solar cells, which allows Juno to operate even when it’s at such a great distance from the Sun.

Screenshot 2016-07-07 at 11.03.21

(Image: NASA)

 

Why is it called Juno?

In Roman mythology Juno was the Queen of the gods. She was married to the king, Jupiter, who wasn’t always well-behaved. Juno had to peer through the clouds to discover what he was up to; the spacecraft is called Juno because it will be looking beneath the clouds that cover the surface of the planet Jupiter.

Aboard the Juno craft are 3 models of Lego minifigures: Jupiter, Juno and Galileo, who discovered in 1610 that Jupiter had moons.

From left to right: Galileo, Juno and Jupiter. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LEGO).

From left to right: Galileo, Juno and Jupiter. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LEGO).

What is it looking for?

Jupiter is enormous; it’s two and a half times larger than all the other planets in our solar system combined. It’s made entirely of gases and is believed to have no solid surface. The planet rotates at an immense speed, completing one rotation every ten hours, and telescopes have shown us that it has a cloudy atmosphere with colourful spots and stripes. The largest of these, known as the Great Red Spot, is a storm that is several times the size of Earth and has been raging for more than 300 years.

Jupiter. The Great Red Spot is clearly visible. (Image: NASA).

Jupiter. The Great Red Spot is clearly visible. (Image: NASA).

This mission is the first time that humans will be able to glimpse what lies beneath Jupiter’s cloudy atmosphere. The main objective is to understand how the planet formed and evolved, which will give us more information about the formation of gas giants as well as the rest of the solar system. Juno will also measure the quantities of water and ammonia within the atmosphere, examine the magnetic field that surrounds the planet, observe any polar auroras and measure the gravity to see whether a solid core may exist after all.

For more information about the Juno mission you can watch this video from Nasa, and have a look at the Juno mission webpage.

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Art & History, Science, Nature and Tech

The Clifton suspension bridge: designed by a woman, built by Brunel

One of the best known landmarks in Bristol, UK, the Clifton suspension bridge first opened in 1864. It was built by the famous British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but it has recently become public knowledge that it was designed by a woman. Our science editor Sam Gouldson explains who she was and why her work isn’t more widely known.

Who really designed the bridge?

The Clifton suspension bridge was designed by a woman called Sarah Guppy. She was born Sarah Beach in 1770, but when she married her husband Samuel Guppy she took his name. She was one of the great British inventors of her time and the bridge isn’t the only thing she came up with.

What else did she design?

The invention that earned Sarah the most money was her device to prevent barnacles forming on the hulls of ships. Without barnacles the ships would be able to cut better through water and travel more quickly, and the Royal Navy paid her £40,000 for it. That may not sound like much for such a valuable design, but today it would be more than £2.3 million. Her other inventions included a kettle that not only boiled water for tea but could cook an egg and keep toast warm, a candle holder that could keep candles alight for longer and a way of treating boats so that they were more watertight. She also came up with the idea of planting willow and poplar trees on the embankments of new railways, to hold the earth together and prevent landslides.

Why isn’t she more famous?

Sarah lived during the Georgian and Victorian eras. In those times married women weren’t allowed to own property in their own name, and intellectual property such as Sarah’s inventions were no different. Her husband had to file the patents on her behalf, as the property of the Guppy family. The patent for her method of piling bridge foundations in order to create a new kind of bridge was filed in 1811, but she refused to charge others to use the idea because she felt it was for the benefit of the public. Thomas Telford, a civil engineer, used her design to build the Menai bridge in 1826, and when the competition to design the Clifton bridge was announced Sarah gave her work to Brunel. When she wrote to him to suggest the use of willow and poplar trees to reinforce railway embankments, she explained that she didn’t want the credit for her idea because she felt that women “must not be boastful”.

 

Featured image: Sage Solar/Flikr

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Science, Nature and Tech

Why do we get Hiccups?

why do we get hiccups

Everybody gets hiccups (also sometimes spelt ‘hiccoughs’). Even when babies are still in the womb they hiccup, which can feel very odd to their mother! But why do we get them and how can you stop them?

What are Hiccups?

Hiccups are caused by the diaphragm (pronounced DYE-uh-fram). This is a large, dome-shaped muscle that sits at the bottom of your chest cavity, below your lungs. When we breathe in the diaphragm tightens, helping to pull air into the lungs, and when it relaxes it forces the air back out again. Sometimes the diaphragm becomes irritated and instead of tightening smoothly it does it in a jerky way, which makes air suddenly rush into your throat. This air is stopped when it hits the voice box and makes the opening between the vocal cords close very suddenly. This is what produces the sound of the hiccup.

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