Teacher Tools for the High Frontier: Rocks in Space

This time around we’re going to look at a pair of high-speed topics – orbital debris and asteroids. This is a really exciting category in the Lunar Library, and not just for the drama movies! Asteroids can provide an enormous abundance of resources should we go out an learn to harvest them, just as we’ve learned to harvest many of the plants and animals of the Earth. This time around we’re doing it so that we can stop tearing up our own planet to get at these things that we need for our technological society. You’ll hear the ‘economic’ claim that dumping mega-tonnes of platinum or nickel on the market will collapse prices. From a basic Econ 101 theoretical perspective that might be true, but it has to be looked at in the broader context of economic and technological activity. One of the many constraints we have on mechanical efficiency in the objects we manufacture, from lightbulbs to internal combustion engines, is the economic necessity imposed on the engineers of constantly trying to find less expensive but almost as good substitutes. In an economy of abundance, the right materials can be used for each application for maximum efficiency. This will enable an enormous demand for re-engineering the products we have into the best that they can be, and for finding new applications for materials like platinum that have previously been constrained in their use by their rareness and therefore cost.


Ida & Dactyl (its moon) Image Credit: l’Unione Astrofili Italiani

This is kind of far-fetched economics from our current perspective, but calls to mind the fact that we’ve cherry-picked all of the easy sources for most of this stuff throughout history, and we’re increasingly having to look further out on the margins for sources of obscure elements that are necessary for things like flat-screen TVs. There are several planets worth of materials available in the small bodies of the inner Solar system. We just need to learn how to go out there and get them.

There’s another purpose for doing this as well. The meteorite that recently burned up over the Sudan announced itself with less than 24 hours notice before its doom. (thank goodness we have a nice thick atmosphere) This is because when you use telescopes to look for asteroids, you’re looking away from the Sun. Things like radar (such as the Arecibo Dish) can look Sunward, but there are all kinds of issues there. I’m convinced we need instruments up out of all the garbage we’ve strewn out to GEO, that can look towards (but not at) the Sun on a regular basis to collect data.

Speaking of garbage strewn out to GEO, we’re going to start out this time around with orbital debris.


“Space Junk: Pollution Beyond the Earth” by Judy Donnelly & Sydelle Kramer is the youngest of the readers for this topic and the one you’re most likely to find in the high school library. Dating to 1990, it is a text-rich book with black-and-white photos, making it unlikely to be of great interest to today’s youth. While this is the only debris-specific youth title in the Lunar Library, I do note that it is a much-featured topic in more general youth space titles. I even discovered the problem of debris back in 1999 while preparing the briefing paper on the UN Outer Space Treaties for the NYCitywide Model UN that year. One sidebar read:

Between 1957 and 1992 there were over 3,000 rockets launched, which placed almost 4,000 satellites in orbit. In the 1970s, the abandoned upper stages of Delta rockets exploded in orbit, creating over 1,200 traceable fragments. The explosion of Cosmos 1275 created almost 300 fragments. A Space Shuttle window was cracked by a tiny impact and cost $50,000 to replace. Humanity threatens to trap itself in a cocoon of space debris.


The National Research Council Commission on Engineering & Technical Systems, Aeronautical & Space Engineering Board, Committee on Space Debris took a look at the problem, and in 1995 published “Orbital Debris: A Technical Assessment”, which takes a more comprehensive look at the issue. It looks at everything from ‘Debris Population Distribution’ (like the asteroids, many little ones, fewer bigger ones) to ‘Designing for the Debris Environment’, and ends with some recommendations, a few of which we’ve made some progress on. It’s available to read online here and here.


The most technical of the three is Artificial Space Debris by Nicholas Johnson & Darren McKnight. From 1987, with an update in 1991, it is part of ‘Orbit: A Foundation Series’ by Krieger Publishing. This one has formulas and flow charts and delves deeply into the theory behind why orbital debris behaves the way it does. This is the kind of book that is a reference at a local university, but if you really want to understand orbital debris, this is the one to consult.


NASA has a vested interest in maintaining its orbital assets in good shape, which means keeping an eye on the debris environment in near-Earth space. They have some good friends with clever assets to help out with that task, but what they can tell you can be found in the “Orbital Debris Quarterly Newsletter” published by the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office. This offers the most up-to-date information you’re going to be able to easily find, making it a great reference source. The latest edition is fresh off the pdf press here (pdf).

Lots of folks other than NASA use space, and so it is of concern to the academic and commercial sectors as well. An institute that focuses on debris is the Center for Orbital & Reentry Debris Studies. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) offers Modeling Orbital Debris Problems to give your cocky TAG kids a challenge. From industry comes a Futron Report “Orbital Debris Mitigation: Regulatory Challenges and Market Opportunities” (pdf), while from the legal sector comes a White Paper on “Orbital Debris: Technical and Legal Issues and Solutions” (pdf) by Michael Taylor of the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill U. Getting back to the UN, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS for short) offers a variety of current Scientific and Technical Subcommittee reports and presentations on orbital debris here.

So there’s no excuse for not doing a good report on orbital debris.

Now, on to the main feature, everyone’s favorite topic du jour, one of the few things about space that pretty much everyone pays attention to (‘cept the folks what should be, I’m thinkin’), those blasts from the past, the rockin’est thing on orbit, the potential treasure chests of prosperity, I’m of course talking about those big rocks from space – Asteroids!


Earth-Ceres (the largest asteroid)-Moon, to scale. Image Credit: Walter Myers

It’s been tough for asteroids to get any respect. Until the middle of the last century, it was almost universally believed that craters were the result of volcanoes. We knew that to be true because volcanoes have craters, and over geologic time even volcanic peaks can subsume into the Earth. A few clear thinking folks had figured it out, but they were too fringey and geeky and radical and stuff to be taken seriously. After all, the evidence was clear.

Except that Earth-changing events do not necessarily take aeons to arise. Thanks to the viciously random and chaotic nature of the universe, the Earth does, on occasion, find its path intersected by that of a big rock. At cosmic speeds, especially for things like comets, the good-ole equation f=ma is not our friend, and our visitors tend to make a big impact very quickly. A larger object impacting in the ocean would create a tunnel in the water behind it because there wouldn’t be time for the water to collapse in before the rock impacts the ocean floor and things like tunnels in water become rather quaint notions in light of the forces (and tsunamis) unleashed.

The seriousness of the topic was truly brought home by the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy-9 into Jupiter, raising plumes larger than the Earth in the wake of some of the larger pieces. Suddenly the scientific community started to really take notice of asteroid science, unfortunately, so did Hollywood, as we’ll see later.


For the space advocacy community, it was just further evidence of why it’s so important to create a space-faring civilization. While most of the general public can easily be rendered into pants-wetting terror by any in-depth explanation of what’s going on, some folks have the courage to face the threat and find opportunity. Asteroids and comets are lifeless hunks of material resources orbiting around the Solar system. Some are rich in water, carbons and nitrogens. Others are rich in metals like nickel and iron (like the pair that I’ve got). Some are treasure houses of platinum group metals, key elements in a technologically advanced society. We’ll also look at some references that treat these rocks for what they are – rocks waiting to be put to good use.


“Kids Can Read: Discover Space Rocks” by Cynthia Nicolson and illustrated by Bill Slavin is the earliest reader in the Lunar Library for this topic. From 1999, with revisions, this one takes a question and answer approach to teaching about comets, asteroids and meteorites (including explaining the difference between meteoroid, meteor, and meteorite). It uses a combination of illustrations and photographs, and weighs in at 32 pages. “Starting With Space: Comets, Asteroids and Meteorites” is also by Cynthia Nicolson and Bill Slavin and from the same year, but is meant for readers aged 7-11. It also uses the question and answer approach, but also introduces activities to help build understanding of the concepts. My favorite is the reflector detector, which illustrates albedo. This one weighs in at 40 pages.


Our next pair, “Asteroids” and “Meteors and Meteorites” are both by Gregory Vogt and date from 2002. They’re on about the same level as “Starting with Space”, although these take the approach of taking individual concepts (Ida & Dactyl, or Impact Craters) with a photo on the left page and an explanation on the right. We can tell we’re into the internet age because there are a couple of useful weblinks in the back of each one’s 24 pages. Mr. Vogt worked for NASA’s Aerospace Education Services Program (or Project, I guess they changed it around), so there’s no doubt he knows his stuff. I want to give a shout-out to the AESP for helping out with teacher certifications and educational content for the ISDC 2007 – it’s how I got my Moon Rock Certification.


“The Ultimate Asteroid Book” by Mary Barnes is from 1998 and weighs in at 82 pages. It looks at what happened to the dinosaurs before introducing us to asteroids, how they might be a threat to Earth, and what kinds of things we can do about it. Each chapter is divided into key word sections, and includes numerous bullet points. I do appreciate chapter 5: Silly Cinema Science, which debunks a number of Hollywood dramatic misconceptions of what asteroids are all about. I’d put this one in the 10-12 age range, closer to 12-ish. “Meteors and Meteorites – Voyagers from Space” by Patricia Lauber is a bit older, from 1989, but also closer to the time frame when the story of the Chixculub crater and how it might explain the mysterious disappearance of the dinosaurs. It has the most photographs so far, and a number of rather interesting ones. Weighing in at 74 pages.


From 1995 we have “Asteroids: Invaders from Space” by Robert Kraske. Mr. Kraske was a magazine editor before getting into kids books, and the layout of this one reflects that. It is a series of short articles on over a dozen topics, from ‘Birth of the Asteroids’ to ‘Dead Comets’, but with numerous illustrations, photos, and informative sidebars. The book notes that it is for age 9+, which may be fair but it is also the most thorough so far, with denser text on most of its 90 pages. It’s quite comprehensive, and the Librarian’s favorite of the bunch. A bit more diversionary, and more easily digestible in a classroom setting, is the February 1995 edition of ‘Odyssey: Science That’s Out of This World’ focused in “Invaders from Space: Asteroids, Meteorites, and Comets”. This one is a bunch of magazine articles, and introduced me to the HEWMAC controversy surrounding the Willamette Meteorite. I’m a bit ambivalent about the controversy, as I got to see the Willamette Meteorite (several times) at the Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC (great gift shop!), and it is a mighty impressive thing to see. The number of people who have the opportunity to see it is much higher where it is than were it returned to Oregon. The kids have a point, and I’m glad they got a chance to make their case.


More program-based are our next several items, where it is assumed that the instructor has some time to really go into the subject matter. From 1996, “Asteroid!” by Russell Wright is described by the publisher as:

“an Event-Based Science module that is primarily about astronomy, with a minor emphasis on paleontology. It uses an asteroid impact with Earth about 65 million years ago to establish the context for exploring concepts related to solar-system astronomy. The task in Asteroid! makes students a public relations firm hired by the United Nations to warn the people of Earth about a new asteroid. This one will impact with us in about two years.”

While fairly complete, it does include exercises like external research. Additionally, the PR firm aspect of it gives a ‘team project’ feel to the effort, and it even got an NSTA nod. The Publisher’s Web Site features a whole slew of additional resources.


The Challenger Centers offer “Rendezvous with a Comet”, where the participants plot the course to a comet. It’s described as:

“In the not too distant future, a team of scientists and engineers are on a daring mission to take an up-close look at a comet as it streaks its way across the galaxy.

Their goal is to plot a successful course to rendezvous with the comet and launch a probe to collect scientific data on the object. They must first construct the space probe and then plot the correct intercept course.

What seems at first to be a routine exploration is filled with challenges and emergencies. Each obstacle that stands in the way of a successful mission requires students to work together as a team and problem solve the solution.”


Last up at the kid level is “Exploring Meteorite Mysteries: A Teacher’s Guide with Activities for Earth and Space Sciences” from NASA. This one is just loaded with activities over a variety of types, from mapping crater locations using latitude and longitude coordinates, to making craters in Plaster of Paris. I don’t think you need to worry about this one aligning with educational standards. As with the Moon-related module, this one can be accompanied by a set of lucite disks showing various types of meteorites.

The best way I’ve found to talk to people about asteroids is to have a couple of real meteorites on hand (the pair shown above). As they try to walk by the display I’ll politely ask if they’ve ever held a genuine rock from space, perhaps older than our planet Earth. I have small a small meteorite from each of the Sikhote-Alin and Canyon Diablo (i.e. Meteor Crater) falls, so both are nickel-irons, making them heavier than most people would assume. I’ll explain some quick ways to identify if an unusual rock might be a meteorite, and then pass into why the NSS wants humans to explore the asteroids (amongst other destinations), and that’s because they represent an enormous trove of material resources that would make the California Gold Rush of 1849 seem like bee tinkle in a thunderstorm.


The one resource that everyone always seems to start off with is “PERMANENT – Projects to Employ the Resources of the Moon and Asteroids Near-Earth, Near-Term”. This web site has been up for over a decade, but is updated from time to time. At one point the creater, Mark Prado, compiled a book from the website, and you can be sure a copy is in the Lunar Library. I’ve even used some of the charts from the site on some of my outreach displays. If you want to get started in asteroid mining, this is the place to start.


The definitive book in the field is “Resources of Near-Earth Space” by John Lewis of the University of Arizona. It is a phenomenally detailed look at just what kind of resources await us on the high frontier. This makes it of high demand in the used market, and copies available for sale don’t stick around too long. I’ve seen prices range from a couple hundred U.S. dollars to almost 5,000 Canadian dollars. Luckily, the University of Arizona has done the space community a huge favor and published the text on-line. More reference materials can be found in the High Frontier Resources section of the Lunar Library, like “Mining the Sky”, also by John Lewis.


Moving from books to video, once can note a sharp distinction in tone between videos about asteroids that come from the academic sector, and those that come from the media sector. The latter tends to be much more breathlessly dramatic with undertones of imminent danger. This makes the academic ones a much better choice for learning something. The one that impressd me the most was “Collisions and Impacts”, the video show at Meteor Crater. From 2001, it’s only 10 minutes, but they don’t waste any of them. I actually traveled to Meteor Crater (a visit I highly, highly recommend) to get my copy, but you can get one from their on-line gift shop for a mere $11. More recently, Harvard University, home of the Minor Planet Center, released a video entitled “Impact: An Asteroid’s Journey to Earth” that I grabbed at this year’s Lunar & Planetary Science Conference. Normally priced at $20, this one is offered for a limited time at half-price. It’s narration over images, but does include a lot more computer animations. It weighs in at 09:45.


Much longer is “Comet Hunters, Asteroid Seekers” from 2005, which features a 33 minute main feature, and over 40 minutes of additional content. Starting with a model of the Chesapeake Bay impact is one way to get the viewers attention. It’s a combination of interview and narration, and the style of the narration tells me this one is meant to be accessible for younger audiences. It looks at SpaceWatch, which scans the heavens for evidence of objects that might be a threat, and explores the nature of the objects for which the project is scanning.


Speaking of threats, National Geographic took a look at the subject in “Asteroids: Deadly Impact”. This is one of the videos with the breathless sense of impending doom woven into the narration. Compared with the above, it comes across as a bit lacking, though it is informative. More recent is “The End of the Earth: Deep Space Threats to our Planet” from The History Channel as part of The Universe series. Again, a much more dramatic rendering of the topic, more fit for television than the classroom (IMHO). The most breathlessly heart-stopping has to be “Super-Comet: After the Impact” from The Science Channel, a sort of faux-news coverage of what might happen after an impact by a comet (which tend to be much, much worse than asteroid impacts, as they’re traveling at a much higher velocity). If you want to give the little ones nightmares, then this is the one for you.

My preference here is clearly for the truer documentaries as compared with the ‘dramatizations’. However, if you’re looking for additional big rock from space drama, then Hollywood has taken care of you, with “Armageddon”, “Deep Impact”, “Asteroid” (a TV special where downtown Dallas gets taken out), “Meteor”, “Tycus”, and the grand-daddy of them all – “When Worlds Collide”.

Some Web Resources
Minor Planet Center at Harvard University


World Map of Select Impact Sites


Info on meteorites from Nine Planets


Meteorite Times


The Meteoritical Society


That wraps up this round of Teacher Tools for the High Frontier. Next in line are Space Navigation (one of my favorites) and Space Biology (where I get to the plant stuff).

Thanks for reading!

Librarian’s Note: Your friendly Lunar Librarian is about to embark on a two-week vacation to the LEAG/ICEUM/SRR conference in Florida and then an NSS Board of Directors meeting in Huntsville, so posting will be intermittent for a couple of weeks. Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll find some interesting stuff in the bookstores between Dallas and Cape Kennedy.

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