THE BLOG
07/01/2011 03:24 pm ET | Updated Aug 31, 2011

Challenge of the Super Scientists!

In addition to space travel, I'm also really into superhero comics. So when one day brought me into contact with scientists who worked with x-ray vision, levitation, and materials with fantastic properties, I started to wonder if I hadn't suddenly fallen into a comic book...

My first assignment for today was to be a microphone holder at a press conference for scientists who had been using the Chandra X-Ray Observatory to study black holes. Much like the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra is a satellite placed in orbit by the space shuttle to capture better images of the Universe than are possible from the ground. But while Hubble sees visible light and a bit of infrared, Chandra sees x-rays given off by celestial objects. (Like Superman, it has x-ray vision!)

Anybody who's seen their share of cartoons and movies knows that if you suspect an invisible person's around, you should look for things you CAN see acting in strange ways, like a door opening by itself, footprints appearing in sand, or a hat and glasses floating in the air. Black holes are invisible, too, but the stars and other material they eat aren't, and when they get torn apart, swirled around the black hole, and sucked in, x-rays are created. That's why the scientists were able to use Chandra to hunt for black holes and observe their behavior.

After the scientists finished their presentations, I waited for one of the reporters in the audience to ask a question so that I could hand them the microphone. But... nobody had a question, so I just ended up sitting there. It was still worthwhile to see the presentations live, though.

And I wasn't disappointed at all about the next item on my to-do list- visiting the Rayburn Building across the street from the Capitol to check out the NASA Day on the Hill event! (Nothing stokes your West Wing fantasies like walking up marble steps in a suit with the Capitol dome behind you and flashing an ID badge to the guard.)

When I got to the foyer on the second floor, my head whipped back and forth trying to take in everything. Posters! A robot! Big TV screens playing animations! A model of the space station!
I immediately recognized astronaut Pat Forrester, who I'd met when I was at the Kennedy Space Center for the STS-133 launch. (And who, as I described in the last post, was the sixth astronaut I ever hugged.) He remembered me and I told him all about my internship. Then he introduced me to his friend Kjell Lindgren, who just became an astronaut last year and hasn't been in space yet. I got Mr. Lindgren to hug me, bringing my total up to 10.

After that, I headed over to the display on the space station, where super scientist Dr. Jan Rogers was carrying out some pretty neat demonstrations. There were some golf clubs on display that were made out of "bulk metallic glass". ("Glass" just refers to how the metal is shaped while liquid, golf clubs made of glass wouldn't last very long.) Dr. Rogers dropped three identical metal balls onto sheets of steel, titanium, and this special metal. The first two balls stopped bouncing after a while, but the last one kept bouncing long after the other two had stopped. Not only is the metal much lighter than those materials, it also absorbs much less kinetic energy- a ball hit by those golf clubs or by a baseball bat made out of the same metal would go much farther than normal, so far that the clubs were banned from official golf tournaments. (Call it anti-vibranium, comics fans.)

The only thing cooler than the properties this metal had was how Dr. Rogers made it. To measure the properties of the metal in its liquid state, the researchers couldn't let it get in contact with anything, so they levitated a small ball of it in mid-air with static electricity. It looked like something from a movie! (If you know the show Strange Days at Blake Holsey High that used to be on Discovery Kids, it looked like the Qigong ball from that.) However, to work with larger amounts of these materials in the future, they'll need the microgravity of outer space.

But will x-ray vision, astronaut training and levitation be enough to save the day? Because in our next exciting installment, our heroine faces the... ROBOTS FROM SPACE!

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