April 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Reach for the Stars | Out-of-This-World Astronomy Titles

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Amid info and images streaming from the Mars rover Curiosity, updates about NASA’s evolving plans to capture and explore a near-Earth asteroid (Asteroid Redirect Mission), and headlines about privately owned companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, (not to mention the popularity of recent sci-fi films such as Interstellar), space and space exploration have become hot topics. Fuel your students’ curiosity and content needs with these stellar resources.

PlanetsThe Planets (2014; Gr 6 Up), an overview published by DK and the Smithsonian, is bursting with information, spectacular visuals, and elucidating graphics. After a brief introduction to our solar system and its formation, this hefty volume takes flight with a chapter on the Sun, then moves onward and outward to cover Mercury, Venus, and the rest of the big eight before culminating with a look at the “Outer Limits” (the Kuiper belt, dwarf planets, comets, and more). Entries for each orb include basic descriptions and statistics, pulled-back and up-close images of the planet’s surface, particular characteristics (topography, weather patterns, etc.), labelled maps, a breakdown of the interior layers and core, glimpses at distinctive destinations (Mars’s Olympus Mons or Saturn’s rings, for example), a timeline of human perceptions and discoveries, and a summary of scientific missions and observations. The Earth’s moon and several orbiting other planets receive similarly in-depth treatments as do asteroids.

Throughout, the writing is clear and engaging; the scientific terms utilized are explained in the text and a lengthy glossary provides additional support for readers. The abundant and carefully captioned illustrations, mostly NASA images, include photos and infrared images taken from spacecraft, data-based computer-generated models of the planets (along with cutaways), artist impressions, reproductions of historical maps and artworks, and more. Numerous diagrams and charts are easy to interpret and aid comprehension. Up-to-date and absolutely gorgeous, this book is useful for research projects, browsing, and sky-dreaming.

CuriosityCombining well-written text with photos and diagrams, Ron Miller’s Curiosity’s Mission on Mars (Twenty-First Century Bks., 2014; Gr 5-9) introduces an SUV-sized NASA rover, which launched via rocket in November 2011 and reached its destination in August 2012, and its data-collecting endeavors. A brief overview of previous Mars expeditions provides background as well as understanding of how Curiosity takes technology one step further with improvements in mobility, navigational cameras, exploration tools (including a robotic arm and hand that can be controlled from Earth and an array of imagers and spectrometers), and a radioisotope power system. The text provides a look at the Martian landscape, climate and weather, land formations, and atmosphere (all illustrated with photos snapped onsite), and details how Curiosity is collecting and analyzing soil and rock samples to determine if the planet is habitable—searching for water, probing for key chemical compounds that could support life, and measuring radiation levels.

Miller explains significant discoveries (e.g., “2 percent of the surface of Mars consists water”), while also discussing future Mars missions, the complexities of (and sketched-out plans for) mounting a manned expedition, and speculation about colonization and terraforming. This readable book makes clear the difficulties of designing and operating high-tech equipment at mind-boggling distances and how scientists meet the challenge. Have student visit NASA’s “Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity Rover”site for mission information, images, and interactives.

BeyondIn Beyond the Solar System: Exploring Galaxies, Black Holes, Alien Planets, and More (Chicago Review Pr., 2013; Gr 5-9), Mary Kay Carson traces the “journey of human understanding about what’s out in space, where it all came from, and how far…” away it is. Beginning with early stargazers and progressing chronologically to 21st-century astronomers and astrophysicists, chapters amass information about important theories and discoveries, groundbreaking scientists and their work, and technological advances that impacted the study of astronomy. Scientific terms and concepts are clearly explained in context, and Carson’s lucid writing makes difficult-to-grasp ideas manageable. The pages are packed with colorful reproductions, crisp photos, charts and diagrams, and dazzling NASA images.

Ranging from easy (basic star-watching tips) to a bit more complex (building a reflecting telescope), 21 activities expand upon the ideas and increase understanding. Many of these hands-on projects illustrate concepts with eye-opening simplicity and can be completed as a classroom demonstration or in small groups. For example, students can visualize how radio waves are transformed into images by graphing and coloring data, or make a model of a black hole by stretching a balloon across a tin can, sprinkling the surface with glitter (representing stars, dust, and other space matter), and observing what happens when a pencil is pushed down on the surface’s center (essentially, denting space-time). Throughout, the pages shimmer with an astounding amount of information and vibrant enthusiasm for the subject matter.

Filled with intriguing scientific concepts and amazing possibilities, invitingly presented information, and striking images, these books will captivate readers and perhaps initiate trajectory for becoming the next generation of space scientists.

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.