Category Archives: Explore

Cosmic Lander: An Engineering Challenge

Here is an engineering challenge for you. Drop a water balloon from the second story of a building onto a rocky bottom and have it survive. In Cosmic Lander, our students do just that!

In this popular class at AstroCamp, our campers transform into teams of engineers. They model landing fragile scientific gear (the water balloon) onto a hard and rocky surface (Mars). They learn that sending rovers and probes to other places in our solar system takes a process of steps.

Step 1: Plan it
Work with teammates. Design it, draw it out and make a plan. Know what you are going to do and how much it’ll cost. NASA has a budget, therefore so do our students. Different materials are worth different amounts of points.


Step 2: Build It
Bring the design into reality. Use appropriate materials. Figure out a way to make it work together.

engineer 1 engineering build

Step 3: Test It
Give it a try. See if it works. If it didn’t, then analyze what went wrong, make a correction, and test it again. If necessary, start the process over until you are successful (you will be successful). Never give up!

engineering done

It is unusual for scientists and engineers to find the best and most successful way of doing something the very first time. Keep in mind the words of Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Every attempt is a new piece of knowledge.

Written by: Mimi Garai

Take Summer Camp Home with You

The time has come for summer camp to end. It’s been full of adventures, silliness, and memories. But that doesn’t  mean that it has to be gone from your hearts forever. Here are a few ways to keep living the camp life style even as the new school year comes rolling on in.summer camp

Sing and play often. You made a bunch of new friends, have tons of inside jokes, and learned a ton of new songs and games. An easy way to keep the spirit of camp alive is to pay it forward. Teach your friends back at home the songs and games. In no time at all it’ll feel like you are breathing that mountain air again!

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Turn those new camp friends into lifelong friendships. A great way to help make that happen is by being each other’s pen pal. Sit down a write out a thoughtful letter. Writing by hand not only allows you to think longer about the person, but it takes more time, energy, thought, and meaning than just a simple text message.

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Reminisce about camp. Take out those pictures, sit down with friends or family, and tell them all about your crazy adventure. As you tell the silly, crazy, and fantastic stories, more details may come to light that you may have overlooked the first time.

summer camp 4

Follow AstroCamp on our journey. We are on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. We post fun science videos and pictures of space and camp life. If you ever feel like camp is too far away from your heart, just look us up online and remember that AstroCamp is always right around the corner!

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Exploring New World

AstroCamp: the summer frontier. These are the voyages of the campers who attend. Their one or two-week mission: exploring strange new worlds, to seek out new friends and new interests. To boldly go where they have never gone before.

There are so many strange new worlds to explore during a summer at AstroCamp, from the fantasy world of Dungeons and Dragons to the bridge of a spaceship in Artemis. These new worlds offer not only a sense of discovery for our campers, but a creative outlet.


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When playing D&D, there are rules in place, but the real limit is the imagination of the player. You decide what your character is like as a person, how they interact with the world and characters around them, and what they do. The dice and dungeon master tell you if your actions are successful, but the more creativity you apply to it, the more fun it is for you and all the other players.


With Artemis, campers each play a role (engineering, navigation, etc.) on the bridge of a fictional spacecraft. Each person needs to complete their job and work together for the mission to run smoothly. Again, the more creativity they bring to the task at hand, the more enjoyable it is. Campers will even play characters rather than just participate as themselves, engaging creativity, teamwork, and problem solving at once.


Experiencing Nature Hikes at AstroCamp

When campers come to AstroCamp, the cool classes and challenge of the ropes course are just part of the benefits. With our camp located right next to the San Bernardino National Forest, students can gain a better appreciation for nature; made stronger by engaging in the day/night hike and wilderness survival courses.

There are several hiking trails nearby students and campers can follow with their instructor, but the most common one is an offshoot of the nearby fire road. Students don’t just learn from being out in nature, but actually learn about the things they’re passing along the way. After their initial climb, there’s a quick water break where students learn about two of the most common trees we have in and around camp: the manzanita and the Jeffrey pine.

The manzanita, seen here, is also called the “zombie tree” because of its special adaptation to the desert climate. Sections of its body die and the bark shrinks back in periods of low rainfall, but these are revitalized once the rain returns. Any hiker learns that while its name may come from the small fruit it produces, anyone eating them will get sick. The Jeffrey pine draws students in because of a chemical inside it that smells like butterscotch, but that chemical is actually toxic and quite flammable.

From there, the hike diverges to a narrow trail splitting off from the fire road. Along the way, there are many opportunities to see nature in action, like trees filled with acorns by woodpeckers, hoping to keep them from squirrels, or ivy taking over the oak tree above.

While hikers are looking down, making sure they don’t trip on roots or leave the path, the Coulter pines above hold a surprise. Coulter pine cones are HUGE, growing over a foot and weighing between four and ten pounds on average. The trail avoids the drop zone for these behemoths, which are nicknamed “widowmakers” for obvious reasons.

A common stopping point on the trail looks over to Lily Rock and also happens to be a great echo spot. It’s hard to demonstrate echoes in a classroom, so this is just one more unique experience to our hiking classes.

At the top, we’ve reached an overlook for all of May Valley. This is a great time to sit and just reflect on everything around you. During the night hikes, groups often have moments of silence up here to just reflect and look up at the stars. It’s one of the experiences students say had the biggest impact on them during their stay at camp.

Sadly, we can’t stay up the mountain all day. Once everyone’s had some time to rest, reflect, drink water, and maybe play some games with their instructors, it’s back down the trail to camp.

Colored Fire for a Happy Halloween!

Note: This involves combining fire which can always be dangerous with chemicals that can irritate skin or badly hurt eyes! Only do this with proper supervision and safety equipment including goggles, gloves, and a fire extinguisher!

The classic Jack-o-lantern has been around for hundreds of years. The tradition was brought to America by the Irish, who had originally started carving the spooky faces into turnips based on a folk tale. Moving to pumpkins was undoubtedly an upgrade, and we think it’s about time for another one!


The lighting of a jack-o-lantern is classically done by candles. Candles burn with a yellowish flame giving off a special glow, but there are ways to make flame in different colors! To do this, the fuel simply needs to have different kinds of salts added. When you think of salt, it probably conjures images of a table seasoning known as sodium chloride, but this is not the only possibility.

Salt actually a scientific term referring to the category of molecule that is left over from pouring acidic and basic solutions together. Fortunately, to acquire these salts, you don’t need to risk working with potentially dangerous acids that could leave you with a costume you couldn’t take off!

Most of these are the result of mixing something with hydrochloric acid, which means that they are often chlorine combined with another molecule, just like sodium chloride! Adding energy in the form of fire causes these molecules to give off unique energy in the form of differently colored light!


Caption: Different salts give off different colors of light. This can come in many forms including from red strontium chloride and green from cupric chloride.

jackolantern-colorOur fire source was rubbing alcohol, with the chosen salt stirred in. To keep it from going everywhere, we used a small glass jar instead of the dishes above. To make sure the liquid burned easily and evenly, we used a cotton ball as a wick like a candle, and put it in the jack-o-lantern!.

Why Practice Challenge by Choice?


Fear can be a good thing. It’s a warning system that often keeps us out of harm’s way. Sometimes, though, it gets in the way of great experiences. Knowing the difference between useful and counterproductive fear– and controlling the latter– is a skill that develops with time and training. Ropes course challenges allow campers to practice recognizing and managing fear in a low risk, high reward setting.


Faced with an intimidating activity, some students immediately see the opportunity for growth. Others need more support. Instructors trained in coaching nervous campers emphasize that it’s OK to be scared, and that fear doesn’t always have to be a deal breaker. They honor kids’ right to set personal boundaries while encouraging them to push their limits in a safe, fun-centered environment.


Once the decision is made, the payoff is huge. On the zipline, for instance, kids decompress from facing their fears by flying smoothly through the air!
Written by: Caela Barry

The Science of Fireworks

It’s easy to change the color of a flame. Just add salt! A substance’s chemistry determines the hue of light that will be released by its combustion. Copper-based salts burn green. Strontium turns flames bright red. Sodium salts, such as table salt, burn yellow. If you’ve ever seen a multicolored fireworks show, you’ve experienced this science firsthand.


Left to right: lithium chloride, boric acid, calcium chloride, and potassium chloride burn in a hand sanitizer fuel base.

When energy is added to an atom, its outermost electrons can become excited, or jump to energized orbitals. When these electrons eventually relax back into their default minimum-energy or ground state, the excess is re-released in a form dictated by the atom’s physical structure– often a specific wavelength (color) of visible light.


The visible spectrum of the sun as observed with the Fourier Transform Spectrograph at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Credit: N.A.Sharp, NOAO/NSO/Kitt Peak FTS/AURA/NSF. Scientists use emission spectra to study the chemical composition of stars, including our own sun.

Color isn’t the only property that distinguishes burning substances. Some elements and compounds also have noticeably characteristic combustion behavior. For instance, iron filings sparkle when ignited, and magnesium flashes blindingly.


Igniting a strip of magnesium.

Pyrotechnic engineers fill firework shells with carefully selected chemical arrangements. Small packages of individual compounds, called stars, are the building blocks of their designs. By packing stars together with strategically placed explosive powder, technicians lay the groundwork for everything from simple starbursts to multi-colored tropical scenes.

Written By: Caela Barry

Building Character Through Craftsmanship

At AstroCamp, we specialize in getting kids involved in activities that they might not usually try. One of our most popular electives is blacksmithing. Campers practice their craft under the supervision of experienced instructors, heating metal to over a thousand degrees Fahrenheit before shaping it with hammer and anvil.


It’s hard work, and rewarding. Student blacksmiths choose, plan, and execute their projects with the guidance and support of blacksmithing specialists. They brave the heat of the forge & summer sun to work on their designs, which vary from jewelry to grappling hooks and everything in between.

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Craftsmanship programs like this one provide a balance of tangible and intangible benefits. Blacksmithing, for instance, is a unique confidence-building experience. Campers learn best safety practices in the face of real consequences and endure intense environmental conditions as they work toward their goals. On top of life skills gained, they walk away with lasting evidence of their efforts.

Written By: Caela Barry

The Victor Blanco 4-Meter Telescope

June 15, 2016, Cerro Tololo

Today started very early!  We wanted to see the sunrise so we had to get up and hike up to the telescopes to before the sun came up.  It was worth the crazy hike!


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

After breakfast we had a tour of the telescopes at Cerro Tololo.  Of course, there is the Victor Blanco 4 meter telescope that is the Southern Hemisphere twin to the one at Kitt Peak, but there are also quite a few other smaller telescopes here.  They call this the “mushroom farm”.


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

These telescopes are run by everyone from Google to the Korean government to the University of Massachusetts.

However, the Blanco was the coolest of them all!  It was really neat to be standing next to the telescope that proved dark energy exists.

Here is the dark energy camera (DECam).


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

Below is the primary mirror, which measures 4 meters across.  This may not be as big as Gemini, but it’s still impressive.  I was standing about 25 feet in front of it to give some perspective.


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

Finally, here’s the other end of the Blanco.   All of the little rectangles on the near end are part of the COSMOS infrared camera.


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

After all that were treated to a spectacular sunset!


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

And it just kept getting better…


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

When we turned around, we had this view of the moon over the Andes.


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

Written By: Michelle Ferrara Peterson

The Coolest Thing About Gemini

June 14, 2016, Cerro Tololo

We started the day by visiting AURA Recinto to listen to presentations from staff in different scientific areas that all work for the observatory. It takes all sciences to make an observatory run.

We then loaded up and started our trek to Cerro Pachon and Cerro Tololo. Leaving the city of La Serena we saw many vineyards. As we continued into the foothills, it looked very much like the road to AstroCamp. However, the mountains grew a little bigger down here!


T. Spuck (AUI/NSF)

We went to Cerro Pachon first to visit Gemini South, an 8 meter telescope. This means that the primary mirror in this telescope is 8 meters (over 25 feet). In this picture taken by Tim Spuck, you can see that it takes 5 adults lying head to toe to cover the distance.

Besides being really big, the coolest thing about this telescope is the adaptive optics that it uses.


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

The silver box on the left labeled GeMS is the housing for the gigantic LASERs that help with the adaptive optics.


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

This is the business end of the telescope. These are the instruments. They have to be engineered to be able to handle moving around with the telescope. Not always an easy task. One last cool fact about this telescope is that the mirrors are coated with silver instead of the standard aluminum. This makes it more reflective in infrared. The views are incredible everywhere but especially from the top deck of this telescope.


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

Cerro Tololo, seen from Gemini


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

Gemini and the future site of LSST to the right (where the crane is)


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

Even the Andes Condors like the views from up here!

We ended the evening with some telescope viewing led by our wonderful host, Juan. He brought out an 11” and a 6” Celestron. Even with light cloud coverage, I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing the objects looked. Omega Centauri popped out of the sky as if we had 3-D glasses on. Amazing! The planets were just breathtaking. I always get excited by them, but holy cannoli were they clear!


J. Blackwell (ACEAP/NSF)

Here is an amazing picture taken by a fellow ambassador, John Blackwell.

Written By: Michelle Ferrara Peterson



We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. AstroCamp is a hands-on physical science program with an emphasis on astronomy and space exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and astronomical happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree in Physics or Astronomy, however it is not uncommon for them to have a Masters Degree or PhD. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science, space and astronomy information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit for additional information. Happy Reading!