Star In A Box version 3

When I was at LCOGT one of the things I helped make was Star In A Box - an interactive tool to explore how stars change during their lives. During the summer it went through some user testing in school classrooms with students in Years 8 (12-13 years olds from sets 1 & 2) and 10 (14-15 years old). The pupils and teachers were asked what they thought was good and what could be improved. We had quite a few positive comments - "cool" and "awesome" were said a few times - and many thought that they learned a lot and had fun. One Year 8 teacher said their pupils were very engaged and still wanted to discuss it at the start of the next lesson! There were also plenty of constructive suggestions and I was asked to use those to make it even better. I've made those changes over the past few months and the new version is now live!

At first glance the box itself hasn't really changed. The one difference you see when you first start it up is that you can select a "mode": normal (Key Stage 3) or advanced (e.g. A-level). This is because Key Stage 3 teachers pointed out that they only used stellar stages such as "Main Sequence" and "Red Giant" but not things like "Asymptotic Giant Branch". They also preferred words like "brightness" rather than "luminosity". You can quickly switch mode at any point by pressing 'm' on your keyboard (or pressing the button on the lid).

Welcome message in Star In A Box CREDIT: Stuart/LCOGT
One of the comments that was mentioned by several pupils (although a couple disagreed) was about the use of colours; they thought it should be brighter and a bit prettier. It was also pointed out that the main sequence was shown as red in the HR diagram but was coloured blue in the time panel clock. That was a bit of cognitive dissonance that I hadn't spotted and shows the benefit of getting real kids to test it. The result is that I've lightened the inside of the box and been more careful in the use of colour (more on that below). Here are before and after screenshots:
Star In A Box (old)
Previous version of Star In A Box CREDIT: Stuart/LCOGT

Star In A Box (new)
New version of Star In A Box CREDIT: Stuart/LCOGT

We've dumped the old "Star Properties" panel as this proved to be a little annoying and confusing. It has been replaced by a simple drop down to change the mass of the star.

The HR diagram has had an overhaul. The text was difficult to read for some especially when answering questions about the temperature and brightness of a star at different times. It doesn't help that the axes are logarithmic. To help with that there is now a crosshair that displays the values on both axes corresponding to where your cursor is. Another thing I did was to make the diagram a little more interactive by letting you jump ahead to any point in the star's life by clicking on the yellow dotted line.

HR diagram
The HR diagram (left: old version, right: new version) CREDIT: Stuart/LCOGT
The side panels have been improved too. The thermometer has been given a chunkier feel and when the temperature goes off the top of the scale it makes that clear. It was also apparent that some pupils thought the maximum temperature reached was 60,000K (when answering questions in the worksheets). To stop that confusion, when the temperature is higher than 60,000K the higher value is shown.

The temperature panel (left: old version, right: new version) CREDIT: Stuart/LCOGT
The luminosity meter now has larger labels and the colour of the meter changes to match that of your star. This should help reinforce that the star's colour is changing over time.

The luminosity panel (left: old version, right: new version) CREDIT: Stuart/LCOGT

The time panel/pie chart was a bit confusing to everyone so it has been turned into a stopwatch with functioning buttons! The colours have also been changed so that the main sequence colour matches the main sequence on the HR diagram.

The time panel (left: old version, right: new version) CREDIT: Stuart/LCOGT
One completely new feature is the information panel which will give you more information about the star you have chosen.

Information about your star's life CREDIT: Stuart/LCOGT
Overall I think we've addressed most of the suggestions that the pupils and teachers put forward. I hope everyone enjoys the changes.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 12th Dec 2013 (18:26 GMT) | Permalink

Space is not a luxury anymore

Back on 5th November India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) lifted-off from the First Launch Pad at Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. This was India's first inter-planetary mission and the successful launch and subsequent orbital manoeuvres were a great acheivement with worldwide coverage.

In the coverage I was disappointed by a minority of commentators who seemed to criticise the very existence of an Indian space programme. Their complaints mostly espoused the view that "space" was a waste of money when there were other issues such as health, education and poverty to worry about first (implying there is no poverty in Britain/US or that we also shouldn't be investing in "space"). The complaints often mentioned the fact that Britain provides financial aid to India (previously £227m per year although that is going to zero by 2015*) and the implication was that this was being squandered on "space" and should be better spent "on the ground". I can see where that view of space comes from but it is about half a century out-of-date.

In the Space Race, manned space programmes were done by rich and/or powerful nations and, in no small part, served the purpose of national chest-beating. That was 50 years ago. Back then it was eye-wateringly expensive to go to space (particularly with people) but things have changed a lot. Technology has developed. Expertise has spread. The cost has reduced. Space is now an integral part of our day-to-day lives and it is surprising how many people take that for granted or aren't even aware of it. With CubeSats and picosats even tiny groups funded via KickStarter can access space for tens of thousands of dollars.

From Earth-observation satellites to communication satellites, unmanned space programmes improve our lives in many ways. Their existence has contributed to: weather prediction; improving agricultural yeilds; locating oil slicks & bush fires; providing accurate positioning for taxis, ambulances, ships and planes; monitoring air pollution and UV radiation; assessing the risk of floods/storms/monsoons/earthquakes/volcanic eruptions; helping with disaster response; providing communications to remote areas; providing accurate mapping; landing planes in poor weather conditions (there was a test in 2011); producing risk maps for communicable diseases; medical diagnosis and treatment devices; remote surgery (will be particularly useful in remote areas); optimizing sustainable forestry; monitoring the effects of changing climate; warning ships about ice bergs; forecasting where fish can be caught by fishermen; providing TV entertainment; providing telephone links. Space R&D also has a positive impact on economies (it is thought that NASA benefits the US economy by 7 dollars for every dollar spent on it) and developing your own launch capabilities can lead to income from launching commercial satellites. The money spent on "space" actually pays for materials and wages down here on Earth.

An unmanned mission to Mars obviously doesn't produce many of the practical benefits that Earth observation does. Despite that, it does develop huge amounts of local experitise in complex technologies, processes and research. It provides a significant amount of inspiration to young people who may decide to go on to become the future engineers and scientists. Having "local" jobs can reduce "brain-drain" to richer countries. In addition it is shown that "blue skies" (or "red skies" in this case) research spending can produce many unexpected spin-offs and spur economic growth because you allow people to explore what inspires them rather than what you think will have a guaranteed short-term benefit. It shouldn't only be rich nations that invest in research and take the rewards that brings.

MOM itself was built for around USD 70m (a large fraction of which seems to be for ground-based infrastructure upgrades that will be re-used). That is incredibly cheap for a mission to another planet and, for context, is half the amount Real Madrid paid for Gareth Bale (USD 140m). Just think about that for a moment. Real Madrid could have bought a less good player and explored Mars!

In the 21st century space is no longer a "luxury" for the richest nations. Far from being a flagrant use of money - such as a Ugandan president using aid money to upgrade a Gulfstream jet - national and commerical space programmes directly and indirectly benefit hundreds of millions of people every day. Having a space programme should help India's development economically and technologically. It should also be able to improve the health and lives of the poorest. Let's stop using the narrative that space should only be for the rich. This is not your grandparents's space programme: it's the 21st century.

* Of course, in the past, the British Empire took vast wealth from India so portraying the UK as being taken-for-a-ride is hard to justify. Obviously, corruption in the use of aid money should be criticised but I'm not aware of evidence of that in this case.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 03rd Dec 2013 (16:04 GMT) | Permalink
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