Imagine you are shuffling along a carpet and reach out to touch the doorknob, and -- zap! - you get a mild shock. What's happened is the friction between your feet and the carpet has produced a large build-up of negative electric charge on your finger. This creates what is known as electric potential difference, or voltage, between your finger and the doorknob. If the electric potential difference is large enough, a sudden flow of current, called an electric discharge, will occur. While this can be in the form of a zap to your finger, it also happens on much larger scales in many different places. In fact, violent electric discharges are responsible for some of the most spectacular displays of sudden energy releases on Earth and in space.
Let's take a look at one other example that you might have come across in say, an auto body shop or at a construction site. Between a welder's tool and metal, there is a large electric voltage. This causes sparks to fly and ultimately for a strong electric current to flow. In turn, this generates a brilliant light display and enough heat to melt the metal and allow it to bond to another metallic surface.
There are patterns of beauty across our Earth and throughout the Universe. We've compared X-ray images taken of objects in space with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory with aerial photographs taken from a helicopter by the artist Yann Arthus-Bertrand. These images may raise questions like: What is science? What is art? How do the two overlap and differ?
For example, here we see a flock of flamingos on the salty water of Lake Nakuru in Kenya. Compare this to the hot gas seen in the collision of two galaxy clusters, one of the most energetic events since the Big Bang.
The speed of an object is defined as the distance it will travel in a certain amount of time. If something travels 100 feet in 10 seconds, its speed is 10 feet per second. We often talk about speeds in miles per hour in the US, or kilometers per hour in most other parts of the world.
Speeds are fun to talk about because they are easy to compare - just like the tortoise and the hare. For example, we know the fastest animal on land is the cheetah. It can reach speeds of 70 miles an hour. In the air, a Peregrine falcon is the fastest, clocking in at nearly 200 miles per hour at its top speed.
While this sounds really fast to us - and it is for humans - it's actually very slow when we compare it to, say, objects in space. For example, let's look at how fast the Earth moves around the Sun. Remember, it takes the Earth one year to make one orbit around the Sun. With this distance being 580 million miles, this means that the Earth moves on average at a speed of some 67,000 miles per hour through space.
You are relaxing with a book on a nice sunny day when a friend leans over your shoulder and the page goes dark. "Hey," you might say, "you're blocking my light!" It is a familiar experience - any time an object blocks the light from another source, it forms a shadow. But did you know all of the places that shadows occur?
We are most used to shadows of, say, people on a beach. As their bodies block the sunlight, this prevents the light from reaching the sand behind them and a darker region is formed.
But much larger objects such as the Earth and the Moon can also cast shadows. During what astronomers call a lunar eclipse, the alignment of the Earth, Moon, and Sun can result in the Earth briefly blocking most sunlight getting to the Moon. Some of the sunlight does make it to the lunar surface, but it is filtered by the Earth's atmosphere, and it is also slightly bent. This causes the sunlight reflected from the Moon during a lunar eclipse to often appear red. The exact color of the shadow across the Moon during a lunar eclipse can depend on the amount of dust and clouds in our atmosphere.
Have you ever watched a duck move quickly across a pond? You may have noticed that if the duck is paddling fast enough, the ripples of water in front of it will merge into a V-shaped wall of water. This structure called a bow wave.
Bow waves are not just found in duck ponds. Rather they can be anywhere in water, air, or even space where an object is moving quickly enough. Bow waves provide scientists with an important opportunity to study speed in many places.
Let's go back to the water for another example. As competitive swimmers move through the pool as fast they can, they push the water and a bow wave forms in the direction they are going. In fact, the best swimmers learn how to minimize the bow waves they produce so they can go even faster through the water.
Bow waves are also found in the air of Earth's atmosphere or even the very thin gas in between stars or across giant objects in space. An object moving through any of these environments creates a series of pressure or sound waves. If the object moves fast enough these waves merge into a 3-dimensional bow wave that is called a bow shock.
Our Sun is a star. In fact, it is the closest star we'll ever see. The Sun is about 5 billion years old and will live for about 5 billion more. But not all stars live this long. Some really big stars -- those that are about ten or twenty times bigger than the Sun -- live for only a few million years. Our Sun is too small to explode, but when these big stars run out of fuel, they go out with a bang!
What happens at the end of a big star's life? It has to do with how stars, which are essentially big balls of gas, shine. A star's energy is the result of gravity, which pulls all of its matter toward the center. This compresses the center of star and makes it so hot there that matter undergoes a process called nuclear fusion. Fusion is when atoms collide. When this happens, energy is released. This is what holds up the outside of the star against gravity. But when the center runs out of fuel, the outer layers come crashing down. A star like the Sun will get crushed down to the size of Earth when this process happens to it billions of years from now. For stars much larger than the Sun that we've talked about, they don't go so quietly. Instead when their outer layers collapse, it generates a massive explosion that astronomers call a supernova. These supernova explosions blow the star apart and, for several days, generate more light than a billion stars.
While astronomers know that Cassiopeia A, or Cas A for short, is the aftermath of a massive star that exploded, it is unclear exactly when the explosion took place.
Supernova explosions in the Milky Way are relatively rare - with one going off roughly every 50 years or so in our Galaxy. For those that exploded centuries ago, it is often difficult to identify their exact birthdate since, of course, there were no telescopes to record them. Getting a precise date is important because the age helps determine many other properties of the explosion.
There are many things around us that bend. Straws bend. Rivers bend. But did you know that light also bends? Actually, it's not light itself that bends, but rather the path that it takes. While this may sound strange, many of us witness this every day when we put on our eyeglasses or insert our contact lenses. These objects are especially shaped to bend incoming light so that it focuses properly on the retina of the eye, allowing those of us with poor vision to see more clearly.
It's possible to find examples of how light's path is bent at the end of the day as well. If you've ever looked at the horizon when the Sun is setting, you may have noticed that the Sun looks more oval than round. What you're witnessing is the Sun's image being distorted. With eyeglasses or contact lenses, it is a piece of glass or plastic that alters the path of light. However, in the case of the sunset, it's the Earth's atmosphere that acts as a lens. The thicker the atmosphere, the more the light from the Sun is bent. That's why the Sun looks more flattened as it gets closer and closer to the horizon, because the light has to travel through more of our atmosphere. The result is that the Sun can look like it's oval shaped, even though we know it always remains a sphere, as it sits some 93 million miles away from us in space.
Atoms are the building blocks of matter. They are also constantly in motion, moving at speeds of thousands of miles per hour at room temperature up to millions of miles per hour behind a supernova shockwave. When an atom collides with another atom at such tremendously high speeds, energy gets transferred. This extra energy has to go somewhere and it is often released in the form of a light wave.
You may not think you have seen this happen, but chances are you have. Most of us have seen the neon lights of a diner or maybe even the strip of Las Vegas. Those bright neon lights glow because of these atomic collisions. Here's how: These signs are made from glass tubes filled with atoms of neon, argon, mercury or other gases. When an electric field is run through the tube, this energizes the atoms inside, making them collide. Each type of atom will release different colors of light, which is how we see these kaleidoscope displays on signs everywhere.