Three bodies, two arms in space: Go Canada
- June 5, 2009 5:41 PM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks
With the announcement this week that Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté will be the first Canadian space tourist, that brings to three the number of Canadians flying in space in less than six months. Bob Thirsk is already aboard the International Space Station and Julie Payette will join him in mid June. During her flight, both Julie and Bob will operate Canadarm One on the Shuttle and Canadarm 2 on the Space Station.
It’s a very visible demonstration of Canada’s prowess as a space faring nation.
While speaking at an American space conference in Florida recently, I reminded the delegates that Canada was the third country in space. The Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957; the U.S. followed with Explorer 1 in 1958, and Canada launched our first communications satellite, Alouette 1, in 1962.
I also reminded them that Alouette is still up there, while Sputnik and Explorer have both fallen back into the atmosphere. Our heritage in space is just about as long as that of the big superpowers. We just don’t make a lot of noise about it.
Astronauts get a lot of attention because they capture the imagination, inspire a younger generation and provide positive role models for dream-driven success. But they are only the tip of the iceberg, a very large Canadian space research and industrial community.
The last mission to Mars, Phoenix, carried a Canadian laser instrument that measured the weather on the Red Planet; Radarsat is orbiting the Earth providing the highest resolution images of the surface of the planet, and Canadian researchers from across the country participate in international space projects.
Now we have a space tourist. Mr. Laliberté says he wants to use his space vacation to raise awareness of water issues around the planet. He will certainly have a high perspective on that. Anyone who has flown in space will tell you how they spend most of their time flying over water as they circle the planet. After all, three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is liquid. It’s appropriate for a Canadian to promote the importance of water, since we have more H2O than any country in the world.
But beyond his important environmental message, there is something else I would like Mr. Laliberté to do while in space. As a Cirque performer, I would like him to use his body in the weightless environment to demonstrate Newton’s laws of motion.
Acrobats do this all the time, but on Earth, they only have a second or so in the air to fly, spin, twist or roll. In space, he’ll be flying constantly for days on end. So it will be easy to see how an object, once set in motion, moves in a straight line until acted upon. If he throws a heavy object in one direction, his body will move in the opposite: action-reaction. If he curls into a tuck position and spins around, we’ll see how there is one spot in his body, the center of mass, that remains stationary while the rest of the body rotates around it. And while he’s spinning, if he straightens his body out, his spin will slow down: conservation of angular momentum.
An educational film of this type would be a great tool for teachers, faced with the difficult task of teaching basic physics. It would bring the physics to life and show that Sir Isaac Newton was really onto something when he figured out these laws of motion more than 300 years ago. It would also bring something to the space program that is desperately needed: A sense of humour.
Sure, space research is important and space flight is dangerous, but now that the difficult construction work is almost complete, it’s time to have a little fun up there. Canadians are known for our sense of humour, let’s lighten up a little.
(You can hear my conversation with Julie Payette on this week’s Quirks & Quarks.)
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