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Astronomy Programs  
The Astronomy Page!

Learn about our Math/Astronomy Programs for Schools (in the left-hand column) or browse through our Astronomy Q&A (on the right)

 School Presentations

Only 6 out of 10 adult Americans understand
that the sun is a star.
If our children are ever to reach those stars,
they will have to do better.

  How much do your students really understand about the earth in relation to the sun and other planets of our solar system; our solar system's place in the galaxy; or  the Milky Way in relation to the vastness of the Universe?
   If you're not quite sure, consider bringing 

Terry & Wayne Baltz
to your school to remedy the situation. Through their fun and educational program,

"A Faster-Than-Light
TripThrough The Universe"

these authors and experienced school presenters will help your students (and maybe you, too!):

  • learn about the concept of scale
  • visit the earth/moon system
  • calculate their moon jump capabilities
  • tour the solar system
  • learn that the number 15 trillion describes something far more interesting than a future national debt limit
  • witness the amazing births--and deaths--of stars
  • see a true-to-scale model of the sun/earth/moon
  • Also available (at no extra cost!):
  • how to return-address your letters to Harvey (or anybody else) in Andromeda Galaxy
  • a tour of exotic nebulae right here in the Milky Way
  • facing really big numbers without fear
  • a snapshot from the beginning of time
    For information about our Math/Astronomy Programs for elementary and junior high students--costs, group sizes, schedule availability, etc.--talk to us toll-free at 1-888-288-4841
  • Call now to make reservations for
    your
    "Faster-Than-Light
    TripThrough The Universe"

    (Note: If you would like to have information about Terry and Wayne's Author-visit school programs and books, click on the appropriate button(s) immediately below, call toll-free, or  email us)

     Questions From Our Readers

    Hey , kids!!

      In this column we will be answering astronomy questions that we receive from our readers.

    (That's you!)

      Below are our answers to some questions we've received. Check this page regularly for updates. And send us YOUR QUESTION!

      Whether we've been to your school or not, if you have a question about astronomy or space, please

    email us

    or write to us at:

    Prairie Divide Productions
    P.O. Box 129
    Red Feather Lakes, CO  80545

    Because of time and space limitations we can't promise to answer every question we receive but each month we will pick a "Question of the Month" winner from those received and award that questioner one of our books (his/her choice), autographed or not, as the winner prefers. If you want to be eligible be sure to include at least your first name and a return address if you are not contacting us via email.
     

    Terry and Wayne Baltz


     P.S. We are also happy to take questions about writing, our books and characters, and even about our personal lives (well, not too personal!). Eventually, non-astronomy questions will be moved to a separate area of the site, but until then you will find some mixed in below. 
     

    And now for the questions! (Start immediately below the button bar. Most recent postings are at top; scroll down to see earlier ones.)

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    Question & Answer Column Continues Here:
    (Questions may be edited for clarity, length, or to preserve anonymity of the questioner)

    Virginia (our "Question Of The Month" winner of a free book) writes to say: I'm 13 years old. I'm very concerned about what I've heard. Is it true that a planet four times as big as the earth is headed for earth and is supposed to hit the earth some time next year?
    Answer: I think we can put your fears to rest. We are not aware of any such report as you describe, and believe it is safe to say that it is nothing more than rumor, or perhaps a misunderstanding of something you heard. There were some recent reports of an asteroid (an asteroid is MUCH smaller than the earth) which has the potential for striking the earth in about the year 2020. But that potential as it is currently computed is very small, about one chance in 250,000. If you want to understand what kind of chance that is, try to imagine this: a very big dartboard. This dartboard is 41 feet 8 inches tall (that's about four stories) and 41 feet 8 inches long. Now take something that is 1 inch square (a typical postage stamp is a good approximation) and have someone tape the stamp to that giant dartboard. (You don't get to see where they taped it). Now you (blindfolded) are led to within throwing distance of the dartboard/wall. You have one dart in your hand, which you throw. Will you hit the stamp? Well, the chance that you will is one in 250,000. Could it happen? Yes. Is it very likely? No. Another way to say it is that, mathematically speaking, you would have to throw the dart 250,000 times to hit the stamp once. How many is 250,000? Well, if you threw a dart every ten seconds, day and night with no time out for eating or sleeping or bathroom breaks, it would take you just under 29 days to throw 250,000 times. But remember, that asteroid (the cosmic "dart") won't even arrive in the neighborhood of earth for a long time. And it only gets ONE chance to hit earth.
        The other thing about the story you heard that makes it so unlikely is that a heavenly body so large as you describe, if it were anywhere within several solar system radii, would be easy to spot and astronomers would have done so long ago. Such a find would have been VERY, VERY big news and everybody would have heard about it right away. And that is true even if it weren't supposed to hit the earth.
        So, Virginia, rest easy on this one. By the way, where DID you hear about this? We're curious. Thanks for your question.      -Wayne

    Casey asks: Is earth the only planet with living objects on it?
    Answer: So far it's the only one we know of. But, so far, it's the only planet we've ever stepped foot on, so it's hard to say. Human beings have walked on the moon and didn't report seeing anybody else, and we've landed robotic probes on Mars with the same results.
        Of course, life comes in all shapes and in all sizes. Many of the forms of life right here on earth are too small to see without special instruments and we continue to find new ones that we didn't know about before. The same could be true on other planets.
        Astronomers estimate that there are at least a hundred billion hundred billion (that's not a typo!) stars  in the universe, and in the last few years they have begun to detect planets around a few of the closer ones. This suggests that planets may be common. If so, that's a whole lot of planets where life might exist. No one has found proof yet. Maybe you'll be the one to do it!      -Wayne
     

    Two related questions come from Hillary: Would you have become astronomers if you hadn't become writers? and from Cathy: What would you like to do, write books about made up stories or books about astronomy?
    Answer:If we weren't writers we would spend more time being amateur astronomers and I might even have become a professional astronomer. But being writers means we can study and write about whatever interests us-- and many things do--including astronomy. (And we are writing about astronomy. Right here!)
        My favorite book when I was in elementary school was a biography of the first American woman astronomer and first person in the world to discover a comet with a telescope, Maria Mitchell. (Find out more about Maria Mitchell by keyboarding or pasting www.mmo.org into your address line. To return to this page afterwards, just click the back button on your browser.) I believe there is a new edition of the book out now. It's called Maria Mitchell: Girl Astronomer. Let me know if it is in your school library.
        We enjoy writing both fiction (made up stories) and non-fiction. We happily combined astronomy true facts with made up stories in our books The Invisible Kid and the Intergalactic RV and Night Of The Falling Stars.
        Someday we may write a book just about astronomy, but only time will tell. Our list of "to do" writing projects always seems to grow faster than we can write them.          -Terry
     

    Casey asks: What is the biggest telescope?
    Answer: Built on a remote mountain top in Chile by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the most advanced and powerful telescope in the world -- called the Very Large Telescope (VLT) -- is really four identical telescopes. Each one by itself is very large: each has a mirror 8.2 meters (27 feet) in diameter. (You can measure it out on your classroom or gym floor to get an idea of how big this is. This is not the length but the diameter of the tube of the telescope.) Each mirror alone weighs 22 tons.
        The four telescopes have been made in such a way that they can be used separately or together. When used together they can gather 10 times as much light as the Hale Telescope on Palomar Mountain near San Diego, CA (for many, many years this was the largest telescope in the world). And here's another neat thing: When the telescopes are used together scientists can use a process called "interferometry" to get an image that would be as sharp as one produced by a telescope 130 meters in diameter (this is way bigger than two football fields laid side by side!). Another way to say it is that it will be able to get images that are 50 times sharper than those we can get now from the famous Hubble Space Telescope.
        Each of the four telescopes has a name. They are called Antu (Sun); Kueyen (Moon), Melipal (Southern Cross), and Yepun (Evening Star [Venus]). These names were selected by a Chilean school girl who won a contest sponsored by ESO.
        The VLT (pictured below) will allow us to study the very early universe and will reveal the immediate surroundings of monster black holes.


    Photo credit: ESO
        But don't think this is the end of the story on big telescopes. Several other big scopes are currently being built or planned. Plans are even underway for something called the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope (OWL). In only 15 more years it will let us see into space further and better than ever before.
     

    Nathan asks: Do you have any animals? and Have you ever looked through a big telescope?
    Answer:We don't have any pets or other domesticated animals, but we do have lots of wild ones around our house (on the outside)--coyotes, bobcats, deer, elk, bear, badgers, eagles, hawks, and owls. Just to name a few.
         We have looked through medium-sized telescopes, up to 10 and 12 inch reflectors, at star parties (people who love astronomy and get together to observe the night sky and share telescopes). We don't own a telescope ourselves. We have a very good pair of binoculars which reveal the four biggest moons around Jupiter and other wonderful sights. Try looking at the moon with a pair of binoculars. It's amazing. (But NEVER look at the sun with binoculars or telescopes unless you are with a knowledgeable professional who has the proper filters. You can damage your eyes very badly.)
     

    Ja-?-?-? (Jared? Sorry. We couldn't read the signature) asks: Why do you like astronomy? Why do you live in Colorado?
    Answer: We both grew up in St. Louis County, Missouri and moved to Colorado as adults when Wayne was hired as a teacher there. We love living in the mountains of Colorado. The dark skies and thin atmosphere make it possible to better see the stars and planets--and even the Andromeda Galaxy.


    Great Galaxy in Andromeda (M31)
    Photo credit: Palomar Obs./Caltech
         We love astronomy because the night skies are so beautiful and because the subject is so vast and interesting. It gives us a broader perspective on life.
     

    Michael asks: How long is it from the state of Missouri to your house?
    Answer:There are different ways to measure. If you measure the straight-line distance (sometimes referred to as "as the crow flies") it's about 800 miles from our house to Center Elementary. But crows can fly right over rivers and people's houses and yards. We travel on the ground by car, and the last time we took the crow's route our engine got wet and people were pretty mad at us for driving through their yards and living rooms!
         So now we follow the roads. If you measure that way, it's about 950 miles and at 70mph it takes us about 14 hours of actual driving time. We usually spend two days on the road. (If we could travel at the speed of light it would take us only 1/200 of one second!)
     

    Andrew asks: Do you know how far away the closest star is?
    Answer:Well, Andrew, as you probably remember from our presentation, the closest star to us here on earth is our sun and is 93,000,000 miles away!
         But if you are asking which is the next closest star the answer is Proxima Centauri, a tiny, red dwarf star. It is only about 1/10 as massive as our sun and about 10,000 times less bright. So, even though it is the very nearest star beyond our sun (about 4.22 light-years away, which = about 25,000,000,000,000 miles [pronounced 25 trillion miles]), it is too dim to be seen from earth using just the naked eye.
         Proxima Centauri is one star that is part of a three-star system -- three stars that revolve around each other -- called Alpha Centauri. Well, one of the other stars in the system is called Alpha Centauri A (it's also known as Rigel Kent). It is just a little bit farther away from us than Proxima Centauri (about half a trillion miles or .08 light-years) but happens to be one of the brightest stars in the sky as seen from earth! The 4th brightest, in fact!
         Here's a picture of Alpha Centauri:


    Alpha Centauri: The Closest Star System
    Credit and Copyright: STSci Digitized Sky Survey, Anglo-Australian Observatory
          The Alpha Centauri stars aren't this much bigger than all the ones around them. That's just an illusion caused by the photography. And don't bother looking for Alpha Centauri up in the sky either -- it's in the skies of the southern hemisphere, far below the equator, and so can't be seen from Center, MO except possibly very, very low near the horizon in the summer.

    Look for other questions and answers coming soon. Send us yours!

     email

    Prairie Divide Productions
    P.O. Box 129
    Red Feather Lakes, CO  80545

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