A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….

We all know what a Solar System is, right? It’s a collection of planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and other smaller bits (all held together by the gravity between them) that circles around a star — in our case, the Sun — that stands at the center of the whole thing. So, a solar system is where we live. But where does our solar system “live”? What happens when we zoom out and see the effect of gravity at a much larger level?

Our solar system and at least 100 billion other star systems are part of a larger grouping, also held together by the gravity between them, called a GALAXY. And just like the planets of our solar system tend to orbit in a flattened disk or plane around the sun, all the billions of stars that make up our Galaxy orbit the center in a highly flattened disk. In fact, our galaxy is pretty much as flat as a pancake; it’s disk is 1,000 times longer across from side to side than it is thick from top to bottom! If we could zoom out from our galaxy, the “Milky Way,” and see it from afar, it would look like a huge pinwheel or whirlpool of stars, which is why ours and many others are called SPIRAL GALAXIES.

There are something like 100 billion visible-to-us galaxies in the universe. When we look at them, each one is quite literally “a galaxy far, far away.” They are so far away that the light we see from them, traveling at a speed of nearly 6 trillion miles per year, takes millions of years to reach us. Because of that, we see each galaxy “a long, long time ago” — not as it is today, but as it was when its light first started the journey through space to get to us.

For the first time ever, the GSC now has a powerful new telescope which, outfitted with a sensitive video camera, lets us view live, real-time images of distant galaxies from right outside our front doors! Watch for us to offer public viewings in the months ahead. In the meantime, here are are some actual views of galaxies with our new scope…

May the Force be with you.

The Science of Beer

Beer is made from four basic ingredients: a grain (usually barley but sometimes wheat or rye), water, hops, and yeast. The basic idea is to extract the sugars from the grains so that the yeast can become alcohol and carbon dioxide, leading to beer.

First, the grains are harvested and processed by heating, drying out and cracking – a step called malting. The main goal of malting is to isolate the enzymes needed for brewing. An enzyme is a protein molecule in cells that works as a catalyst to speed up chemical reactions.

Next, the grains go through a process known as mashing. The processed grains are steeped in hot water for about an hour (similar to making tea… but it’s beer tea). This activates the enzymes in the grains, causing them to break down and release sugars. Once this is all done, the water is drained from the mash, which is now full of sugar from the grains. This sticky, sweet liquid is called wort. It’s basically unmade beer, sort of like how dough is unmade bread.

The wort is boiled for about an hour while hops and other spices are added several times to create different brews. Hops are a vine plant’s small, green cone-like fruits. They provide bitterness to balance out all the sugar in the wort. They also provide flavor and act as a natural preservative, which is what they were first used for.

The cooled, strained and filtered wort is then put into a fermenting vessel to which yeast is added. At this point, the brewing is complete and fermentation begins. During this time, the beer is stored for a couple of weeks at room temperature (in the case of ales) or several weeks at cold temperatures (in the case of lagers), while the yeast eats up all the sugar in the wort and spits out carbon dioxide and alcohol waste products. Yum!

At this point, alcoholic beer is born. However, it’s still in a flat and uncarbonated state. This flat beer is bottled and can either be artificially carbonated like a soda, or if it’s going to be ‘bottle conditioned’, allowed to naturally carbonate via the carbon dioxide the yeast produces.

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After allowing the beer to age for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, you can drink the beer – and it’s delicious!

 

Conservation Creation: April Showers

In some way or another, we are all connected by water. Water is not only necessary for our survival, it makes our lives better in countless ways! To name just a few examples, water is used for our plumbing systems, growing the plants that become our food, and keeping our boats afloat so that they can transport goods all over the world. We even use water for recreation: when we kayak, swim or visit water parks! It’s safe to say that water is one of our most important resources.

So, how does water connect all of us? Through the water cycle! When the Earth heats up, water evaporates and begins to collect in the clouds. Once the evaporated water begins to cool, droplets form and return to Earth in the form of precipitation (think rain or snow). You can learn more about precipitation and weather in the GSC’s Weather Gallery on your next visit!

To see what the water cycle looks like in action, follow the steps below for this month’s Conservation Creation activity, Storm in a Cup.

What you’ll need: A glass, a small container, blue food coloring, an eyedropper, shaving cream, and water

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Step 1: Fill the glass with water, leaving about 1-2 inches at the top for the “cloud”. In the small container, mix water and blue food coloring. The resulting blue water will be your “rain”.

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Step 2: Add shaving cream to the glass of water, filling to the rim. This will form the “cloud”.

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Step 3: Use the eyedropper to drop blue water into the center of your cloud. It may take a while for the rain to break through the shaving cream, but once it does, your cup will resemble a storm.

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For an additional lesson, see how long it takes for all of the water in the cup to turn blue. This can serve as a model for pollution!

Since all water is connected through the water cycle, it’s important for us to do all that we can to keep our water clean. You can learn more about how to get involved in keeping our water clean through the City of Greensboro Water Resources website!

Conservation Creation: March of the Dinosaurs

How do scientists learn about plants and animals that are no longer here on Earth? Through studying fossils, of course! Fossils are created through a process called fossilization, in which materials like bone are slowly replaced by minerals. Another way fossils are formed involves the decay of an organism, which leaves behind a mold that gets cemented into a cast. Fossils can show bone, teeth, plant and skin textures, eggs, footprints, and imprints left behind. The scientists (called paleontologists) who study fossils have even found fossilized dinosaur poop with animal remains inside of it!

Paleontologists have been able to learn a lot about dinosaurs from studying their fossils. Based on evidence from bone and footprint fossils, we can learn the sizes of different species of dinosaurs, where they lived, how far they traveled, and whether they preferred to live in groups or on their own. Fossils have also given us information about how dinosaurs looked, moved, and even how they may have sounded!

While we’ve uncovered many of the mysteries of animals from the past, paleontologists are constantly finding new fossils and learning new things! For example, in 2016, a cache of hundreds of pterosaur eggs were discovered in China. Before this discovery, only six well-preserved eggs had ever been found! (You can read more about that discovery here.)

Now it’s time to make some discoveries of your own – with some DIY fossils!

What you’ll need: Flour, salt, water, craft sand, measuring cups, a large bowl, and dinosaur toys to make some fossil imprints.

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Step 1: Mix together 2 cups of flour, 1 cup of salt and 1 cup of craft sand.

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Step 2: Add ½ cup of warm water to the bowl containing the sand, flour, and salt.

Note: For more vibrant fossils, add food coloring that matches the sand to the water before mixing.

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Step 3: Use your hands or a wooden spoon to knead all of the ingredients together until they feel like a grainy bread dough. You may need to add small amounts of water or flour to get the consistency where you want it.

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Step 4: Using a small amount of dough, gently press your fossil object into it to leave an imprint.

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Step 5: Allow this to harden overnight. For a faster dry, you can also bake the dough at 250 degrees for 1-2 hours.

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Once your fossils are dry, examine them and discuss what you may be able to learn from them!

To make this project more challenging, use a variety of animal toys or plant textures to study a larger variety of fossils!

Species Sampling: Crayfish

In late January, with temperatures hovering in the low 30s, a team of GSC staffers took to the streams to identify crayfish. Why, you might ask, would you wait for such a cold day for this particular project? We, the marketing department, had the same question as we were unceremoniously dragged from our heated office spaces to document the activity. According to our fearless leaders, Lindsey Zarecky, the GSC’s VP of Conservation and Research, and Brena Jones, of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, digging up crayfish is actually one area of research that lends itself to a winter excursion. The lack of new growth present at this time of year makes it easier to spot crayfish burrows and holes in the streambed.

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We know what you’re thinking… crayfish aren’t all that exciting. We thought so, too, initially. But read on! We’re going to share some truly fascinating factoids about a species present in our own backyards.

The first step to identifying crayfish, we learned, is locating them. Crayfish are burrowers. They are categorized based upon their habitat preference as primary burrowers (meaning they spend most of their time in burrows), secondary burrowers (meaning they are more often found in streams than burrows), or tertiary burrowers (meaning they are only found in burrows during breeding season). In order to find the animals, our team walked slowly through the stream, lifting rocks and looking for movement and searching for raised mounds that could indicate the presence of a burrow.

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Once the crayfish were found, the real fun began. Each animal was first identified by looking for several characteristics that distinguish one species from another. When it comes to pincher claws on a crayfish, size matters – for identification purposes, of course. The fat pinchers of the Cambarus are relatively obvious when compared with the long, narrow pincher claws of the Procambarus. Since crayfish can regenerate their claws, a tip Brena had for our team was to always look at the bigger claw for better accuracy.

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In addition to pincher claw size, the width between the lines on top of the animal’s carapace (or top shell), the presence or absence of spines on the carapace, and the pointiness or bluntness of the rostrum (which is a fancy word for the space between the eyes) can all be used for identification purposes. With that being said, there are a lot of undescribed species of crayfish in North Carolina, which can make identification challenging!

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Once the species was identified, some – ahem – personal information was also collected and recorded, such as the overall size and the sex. Males, Brena showed us, have an extra set of swimmerets, rigid in nature, on the underside of their tail. Each animal was also given a gentle squeeze. Pardon the scientific terminology here: a “squishy” crayfish may have recently molted. A shed exoskeleton means a growing crayfish!

Now, on to the big questions: why, exactly, are we digging up crayfish? Well, scientists, including the GSC’s own Lindsey Zarecky, are studying the effects of urbanization on wildlife. The recent sampling of species performed in our stream will establish a baseline for comparison as our facility continues to grow and expand. Knowing what the ecosystem looks like before, during and after construction will help scientists understand how to find a balance between continued development and maintaining native wildlife populations. The ultimate goal is to discover how to create a scenario where everyone wins – both humans and wildlife alike.

Conservation Creation: Crafting Corals

Coral reefs are some of our planet’s most beautiful and vital ecosystems. Created by corals, reef systems provide both food and shelter to a large variety of animals. These amazing animals sustain around 25% of ocean life, even though they only make up about 1% of the ocean. Not only are animals able to live in the reefs, but the algae that grows on the corals is an important food source for several different organisms. Corals and algae are in what we call a symbiotic relationship – meaning they both benefit from each other. Corals provide algae with a place to grow; at the same time, corals gain energy through the algae’s photosynthesis.

So what are corals? Corals are tiny animals, called polyps, that group together to form a larger structure. Once an initial skeletal structure is formed, tissue can begin to grow. Once tissue has formed, some corals maintain a rigid appearance (like staghorn coral), while other corals are soft (like waving hand coral). As you could imagine, the appearance and traits of corals are incredibly diverse. As unique as corals are, they all face similar issues in the ocean. Corals have very specific environments that they inhabit. These environments are negatively affected by climate change, but we can help corals by reducing our carbon footprint and fighting ocean pollution.

 

Now, for our DIY activity: here’s how you can craft a coral reef of your own!

What you’ll need: Coffee filters, pipe cleaners, bowls, water, food coloring

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Step 1: Fill your bowls with about an inch of water and food coloring. You can have as many bowls and colors as you would like! Just remember that more food coloring = brighter colors.

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Step 2: Place your coffee filters upside down in the water. Be sure to allow the color to travel throughout the whole filter. (For younger kids, this can be a great opportunity to teach them about color mixing!) Once the color has made its way through the whole filter, set filters aside to dry overnight. Low on time? This process can be sped up with the help of a blow dryer.

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Step 3: Stack 2-4 coffee filters together, then push a pipe cleaner through the center. You will want to twist the end of the pipe cleaner into a small ball to keep the filters from sliding off. This will serve as the center of your coral.

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Step 4: Pinch the bottom of the filters around the pipe cleaner, then wrap the pipe cleaner around the pinched section; this keeps the coral together.

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Step 5: Repeat the process to create as many corals as you would like! In this way, you can create your own reef! Feel free to get even more creative by adding toy animals or whatever else you’d like to see in your reef. For an added challenge, research different types of corals and animals living together in the ocean and try to build your reef based off of that environment!

Conservation Creation: Jelly Jamboree

Without a doubt, jellies are one of Earth’s strangest animals. They have neither hearts nor brains but have managed to survive on our planet for over 500 million years! Often called jellyfish, they’re not actually fish – instead, they make up their own group of incredibly diverse animals. For example, the smallest jelly, the Irukanji, only grows to about the size of a thumbtack, while the Lion’s Mane Jelly can reach lengths of over 100 feet! Some jellies use stinging for defense and hunting, others can clone themselves, and others still can glow in the dark.

So, what do these diverse animals actually have in common? A jelly’s body consists of a bell (the round top of the jelly), a nerve net (instead of a brain), and a mouth organ.

At the Greensboro Science Center, we house three distinct species of jellies:

moon jelly 01Moon Jellies – typically found in Japan, they’re an aquarium favorite, primarily due to their hardiness and robust lifespan of approximately 12 months. Moon Jellies sting using the small, tentacle-like structures surrounding their bell. However, the Moon Jelly’s sting is so mild that most humans wouldn’t even realize it if they’d been stung. The long, thin structures that extend from the bell of the jelly, called oral arms, move foods such as brine shrimp and small planktons to the Moon Jelly’s central mouth.

blubber-jelly_3770.jpgBlubber Jellies – native to the Indo-Pacific regions and coastal Australia, these jellies have a unique way of acquiring their food. They ram their bodies into the sand to stir up tiny crustaceans and plankton to catch in their oral arms, which contain stinging cells and also act as a mouth. Tiny spaces along the arms process the food (rather than moving it to a central mouth, like the oral arms of Moon Jellies do). Blubbers come in three different color varieties – white, blue and maroon – and have a lifespan of around 10 months.

cassiopea-or-upside-down-jellyfish-shutterstock_173059469.jpgUpside Down Jellies – found in the Gulf of Mexico and Mediterranean Sea, these jellies are one of the world’s most unique jellies. They lay on their bells with oral arms pointing upwards towards the sunlight. Bacteria on the oral arms allow these animals to gain energy through photosynthesis… just like plants do! Upsides Down Jellies also eat plankton and small fish, which is warm, sunny waters make for a perfect environment for them to thrive.

At first glance, jellies may not seem to be up to much, but they’re actually doing a lot of good for our oceans! Not only do they provide a food source for many of our favorite animals, but they also help to stir the ocean, keeping it healthy. Unfortunately, climate change and plastic pollution are working against these amazing animals. If you’d like to help jellies and the animals that rely upon them, reduce your plastic usage and your carbon footprint. A couple of easy ways to do this? Switch from single-use plastic straws and bags to reusable options, and buy more local produce and products when available.

And now, it’s DIY time! Here’s how to make your own jelly slime:

DSC_5090For this activity, you’ll need:

– 1 bottle (4 oz) of Elmer’s school glue

– ½ teaspoon Borax (found in the laundry detergent aisle)

– Food coloring

– Plastic wrap

-2 bowls and 2 spoons

-1 cup of warm water

DSC_5093Step 1: Pour all of the glue into a bowl.

 

 

 

 

 

DSC_5100Step 2: Fill the empty glue bottle with warm water, then add it to the glue in the bowl and stir.

 

 

 

 

DSC_5101Step 3: Add the food coloring and mix well.

 

 

 

 

 

DSC_5104Step 4: In a separate bowl, mix the Borax with ½ cup of warm water until the Borax is dissolved.

 

 

 

 

Step 5: Slowly add the Borax solution to your glue mixture.

DSC_5114Step 6: Stir and knead the mixture until you have a bowl of slime!
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DSC_5124To store, place your slime in the middle of a square of plastic wrap. Twist the wrap around the slime, then add a small rubber band or paper clip to keep this in place. Your slime will last about two weeks.

DSC_5126 (1)FUN FACT: After your slime is wrapped up, gently touch the top; it’ll feel very similar to a real jelly!

During the month of November, join us on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:30 and 2:30 in SciPlay Bay for a Jelly Jamboree!

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