Seeing the Invisible
Antennae galaxies in different light. Credit: NASA

Seeing the Invisible

13/02/2019Written by Tori Tasker

Delve into the mysteries of the invisible universe this February half term 16-24 February 2019.

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mascot Telescope Right
Antennae galaxies in different light. Credit: NASA

Did you know that 95% of our universe is invisible?

We can see ordinary matter such as stars and planets, but our universe is also filled with hidden, mysterious stuff such as dark matter and dark energy.

The invisible universe has inspired our 2019 February half term programme here at the National Space Centre.

From the rainbow ribbons of the northern lights to the invisible cosmic rays zipping through the air, our Science Zone will give you a glimpse into our invisible universe.

Amazing Aurora

Amazing Aurora
Aurora from the ISS. Credit: ESA/NASA
Amazing Aurora
Diagram showing the formation of aurora. Credit: NOAA

For many of us, seeing the aurora (or the ‘northern lights’) sits as an aspiration on our bucket list. In our Science Zone we get a bit closer to the science of this beautiful phenomenon.

To create an aurora, you need three key ingredients: a match, a fuse and a firework. In the case of the Northern Lights our match is the Sun, our fuse is the Earth’s magnetic field and the firework is the chemical reaction within the gases of our atmosphere.

So, if we have the right ingredients, how do we make an aurora work?

Our Sun sends out charged particles that flow throughout our entire Solar System, including past the Earth. These charged particles are attracted to the Earth’s magnetic field at our north and south poles.

Once they reach the poles they collide with gas molecules in Earth’s atmosphere and give them extra energy. The excited gas molecules then begin to glow. Different types of gases each glow a different colour, giving us the stunning natural phenomenon in our north and south poles.

Invisible Particles

Invisible Particles
Cosmic rays, artist impression. Credit: ASPERA collaboration
Invisible Particles
Credit: ESA/National Space Centre

Did you know that there are particles passing through your body as you read this?

There are many types of particles that cannot pass through us, such as light. However, some particles do not interact with normal matter and therefore can pass right through us.

Here at the National Space Centre, we wanted to investigate these invisible particles. So, we built our very own cloud chamber which can reveal some of these particles. Our cloud is made from alcohol vapour which means that we can see high-energy electrons, protons, and other cosmic rays, zipping through the air.

We’ve added a radioactive source called thorium which means there are even more particles reacting in our cloud.

Telescopic Time Machine

Telescopic Time Machine
James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

Did you know that by looking up at the stars you are actually looking into the past? The further away a star or galaxy is, the longer it takes its light to reach us here on Earth.

The James Webb Space Telescope is going to see what happened just after the Big Bang, around 13.5 billion years ago. This is our deepest trip into the past yet. JWST will use infrared light, which tracks thermal heat, to peer far back into time, and through the clouds of gas and dust that block normal visible light. When it launches, JWST will be a powerful successor to the iconic Hubble Space Telescope.

Seeing the Invisible – live science show

Seeing the Invisible – live science show

We invite you to explore even more of our invisible universe in our February half term programme – Destination Space 2, running from Saturday 16 February until Sunday 24 February 2019.

The live science show runs at 12:00, 13:30 and 15:00 daily in our Live Space gallery.

Join us between 11:00-16:00 daily in our Science Zone for live experiments.

These activities are part of the Destination Space 2 programme, which is funded by the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres and the UK Space Agency.

 

About the author: Tori Tasker is Public Programmes Team Leader at the National Space Centre.