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Students over the moon at Space Day

After spinning blindfolded, firing Alka-Seltzer rockets, and trying to thread PVC pipes together while standing on skateboards, the Grade 6 students who got to play astronauts at Monarch Park Collegiate last month learned a funny thing about zero gravity.

It doesn’t exist.

“A lot of people don’t understand gravity,” says Steve Lang, an educator at the Canadian Space Resource Centre. “If you ask them, they say there’s no gravity in space.”

Phoebe Yung, a Grade 11 student at Monarch Park Collegiate, takes students from Westwood Middle School for a spin in a chair modelled on astronaut training exercises. Spinning upsets the vistibular system – three fluid-filled canals in the inner ear that give people a sense of balance. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Phoebe Yung, a Grade 11 student at Monarch Park Collegiate, takes students from Westwood Middle School for a spin in a chair modelled on astronaut training exercises. Spinning upsets the vistibular system – three fluid-filled canals in the inner ear that give people a sense of balance.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

But of course gravity does exist in space, Lang said, which people quickly realize when they think how Earth orbits the Sun, or how black holes form.

Gravity is just a much weaker force in space, he said, which is why scientists call it “microgravity”.

Even in the space-age soccer dome at Monarch Park, microgravity was a tough feeling to simulate at the Toronto District School Board’s Air and Space Day on Feb. 20.

But Lang did design several exercises to give students a feel for something astronauts are missing completely – weight.

Wearing hockey helmets and gloves to simulate bulky space suits, Grade 6 students stood on rotating disks while they tried to tighten a bolt with a wrench.

It was something like what Chris Hadfield had to do on a 2001 spacewalk, the first for a Canadian, when he pushed off a space shuttle to bolt the Canadarm2 to the International Space Station.

Given that Hadfield, the Space Station and the robotic arm were all in the same state of free-fall, Lang explained, there was no anchoring force to resist any movements Hadfield made – something like the struggle students faced while spinning on disks or rolling on skateboards.

Elizabeth Ambachew, a Grade 12 volunteer from Monarch Park Collegiate, watches as Leslieville Elementary students Lucy, left, and Yeon, right, try and fasten together a pair of PVC pipes while balancing on skateboards. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Elizabeth Ambachew, a Grade 12 volunteer from Monarch Park Collegiate, watches as Leslieville Elementary students Lucy, left, and Yeon, right, try and fasten together a pair of PVC pipes while balancing on skateboards.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

“They’re doing some pushing and pulling, which is very simple, but it really gives them a sense of what it’s like in space when you push on something,” said Lang, who pointed out that it was exactly that problem that led Canadian engineers to invent a special system of wire nooses for the “hand” at the end of the Canadarm.

The three nooses snare objects before there is a chance the robotic hand might bump into an object, like a multi-million dollar satellite, and send it floating helplessly away.

Steve Yee, the vice-principal at Monarch Park, said this was the first year that the school has hosted the Air and Space Days.

Over three days, more than 800 Grade 6 students visited the track and field dome for 10 hands-on stations, which besides the spacewalk simulators included a dizzying video to show how the brain’s balance system works, videos from Chris Hadfield’s several missions, and a game of space Jeopardy hosted by senior Monarch Park students who volunteered to help out.

“We have this wonderful facility,” Yee said, referring to the school’s white and silver track dome. “It’s usually used for physical education, but we want to see what other areas it can be used in.”

For more about Canada’s contribution to astronomy and space exploration, including Hadfield’s videos, visit the Canadian Space Agency website at www.asc-csa.gc.ca.

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