Chapter 20 Between the Stars: Gas and Dust in Space
Collaborative Group Activities
- The Sun is located in a region where the density of interstellar matter is low. Suppose that instead it were located in a dense cloud 20 light-years in diameter that dimmed the visible light from stars lying outside it by a factor of 100. Have your group discuss how this would have affected the development of civilization on Earth. For example, would it have presented a problem for early navigators?
- Your group members should look through the pictures in this chapter. How big are the nebulae you see in the images? Are there any clues either in the images or in the captions? Are the clouds they are part of significantly bigger than the nebulae we can see? Why? Suggest some ways that we can determine the sizes of nebulae.
- How do the members of your group think astronomers are able to estimate the distances of such nebulae in our own Galaxy? (Hint: Look at the images. Can you see anything between us and the nebula in some cases. Review Celestial Distances, if you need to remind yourself about methods of measuring distances.)
- The text suggests that a tube of air extending from the surface of Earth to the top of the atmosphere contains more atoms than a tube of the same diameter extending from the top of the atmosphere to the edge of the observable universe. Scientists often do what they call “back of the envelope calculations,” in which they make very rough approximations just to see whether statements or ideas are true. Try doing such a “quick and dirty” estimate for this statement with your group. What are the steps in comparing the numbers of atoms contained in the two different tubes? What information do you need to make the approximations? Can you find it in this text? And is the statement true?
- If your astronomy course has involved learning about the solar system before you got to this chapter, have your group discuss where else besides interstellar clouds astronomers have been discovering organic molecules (the chemical building blocks of life). How might the discoveries of such molecules in our own solar system be related to the molecules in the clouds discussed in this chapter?
- Two stars both have a reddish appearance in telescopes. One star is actually red; the other’s light has been reddened by interstellar dust on its way to us. Have your group make a list of the observations you could perform to determine which star is which.
- You have been asked to give a talk to your little brother’s middle school class on astronomy, and you decide to talk about how nature recycles gas and dust. Have your group discuss what images from this book you would use in your talk. In what order? What is the one big idea you would like the students to remember when the class is over?
- This chapter and the next Birth of Stars include some of the most beautiful images of nebulae that glow with the light produced when starlight interacts with gas and dust. Have your group select one to four of your favorite such nebulae and prepare a report on them to share with the rest of the class. (Include such things as their location, distance, size, way they are glowing, and what is happening within them.)