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The athletes that compete in the Olympics can do amazing things. They run faster, jump higher, and spin quicker than most of us ever will.

Many of us are also in awe of what the Universe has to offer. Astronomers have explored the heavens with their telescopes and come up with findings that are so fantastic it can be hard to believe they're real.

What do Olympic athletes and objects in space have in common? The answer is matter in motion, often in extreme examples. Whether it is a human body moving at the fastest speeds possible or the debris from an exploded star blasting through space, the physics of that motion is, in many ways, the same.

The AstrOlympics project explores the spectacular range of science that we can find both in the impressive feats of the Olympic Games as well as cosmic phenomena throughout the Universe. By measuring the range of values for such things as speed, mass, time, pressure, rotation, distance, and more, we can learn not only about the world around us, but also about the Universe we all live in.

The Olympics are an opportunity to behold the limits of human abilities in athletics. After all, the Olympic motto is Latin for "faster, higher, stronger." AstrOlympics enables us to appreciate the feats of the Olympic athletes and then venture far beyond into the outer reaches of space.

Let's find out just how far we've learned science can go.




Definition: when an object turns around a central axis. Rotational speed is defined as the number of turns around an axis over a given time.

The idea of rotation can be found in many places from children's toys (spinning tops and merry go rounds) to household appliances (washing machines). In modern language, the description of rotation is often used interchangeably with 'spin' and 'revolution'. By measuring how many rotations (or cycles) an object makes over a certain amount of time, we can compare how quickly each is turning.

Units: revolutions per minute (RPM), Hertz (one cycle per second)
More information on rotation

> COSMIC EXAMPLE
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COSMIC EXAMPLE
Crab Nebula Pulsar: 1800 RPM (30 Hertz).

The Crab Nebula spews a blizzard of high-energy particles, as detected by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, from a dense core that spins at 1800 RPM (30 Hertz).
> OLYMPIC EXAMPLE
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OLYMPIC EXAMPLE
Gymnast performing a back flip in mid-air: 90 RPM (1.5 Hertz)
> EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
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EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
Washing machine: 1200 RPM (20 Hertz)

Definition: distance traveled over a certain period of time

We often note when something is moving faster or slower than something else. Speed is often used interchangeably with velocity, but they are in fact not the same. Speed measures distance over time, and velocity does this and adds direction. Therefore, two objects may have the same speeds but different velocities if they are moving in different directions.

Units: miles per hour (mph), kilometers per hour (kph), meters per second (mps)
More information on speed

> COSMIC EXAMPLE
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COSMIC EXAMPLE
Cassiopeia A shockwave moving into interstellar medium: 10 million mph (16 million kph).

The supernova remnant Cassiopeia A has a shockwave from the explosion that destroyed the star moving into space at 10 million mph (16 million kph).
> OLYMPIC EXAMPLE
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OLYMPIC EXAMPLE
Fastest sprint: 27.8 mph (44.6 kph)
> EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
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EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
Typical US speed limit on highways: 60 mph (96 kph)

Definition: how far away an object is or the amount of ground an object has covered in its motion.

We frequently ask: how far away is that? The concept of distance is very familiar to us for things we encounter on Earth. One way to describe distance is as the ground covered between two points. When we think about things on different scales, we find that distances can stretch (or shrink) almost as far as our imaginations.
Units: meter (m), kilometers (km), feet, miles, light years (A light year is the distance light travels in a year, about 6 trillion miles/9.5 trillion km).
More information on distance

> COSMIC EXAMPLE
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COSMIC EXAMPLE
Distance to the Bullet Cluster: about 3.4 billion light years (3.2x1022 km).

The Bullet Cluster is the site of a spectacular collision between two galaxy clusters located at a distance of some 3.4 billion light years or 3.2x1022 km.
> OLYMPIC EXAMPLE
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OLYMPIC EXAMPLE
Olympic distance between archer and target: 70 meters (230 feet)
> EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
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EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
Distance from one end of Brooklyn Bridge to the other: 1797 meters (5989 feet)

Definition: the accurate measurement of repeating patterns

We experience time every day, but it's not always easy to pin down a precise way to describe it. In science, we define time by the ability to measure it across some reasonably consistent pattern: the spinning of the Earth on its axis, a pendulum swinging back and forth, or the vibration of atoms under certain conditions. Time and our ability to measure it accurately is key for many frontiers of science.
Units: seconds
More information on time

> COSMIC EXAMPLE
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COSMIC EXAMPLE
Age of the globular cluster 47 Tucanae: about 13 billion years or 4 x 1017 sec.

Globular clusters like 47 Tucanae are the oldest star systems in our Milky Way galaxy. Astronomers think they formed about 13 billion years ago (4x1017 sec).
> OLYMPIC EXAMPLE
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OLYMPIC EXAMPLE
Time for 50 km (31 mi) race walk: 12,939 sec
> EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
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EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
One minute: 60 seconds One hour: 3,600 seconds

Definition: force over a particular area

The word 'pressure' takes on lots of meanings in today's language. The physical definition of pressure states how much push, or gravitational force, is being exerted by all the matter around or nearby. Solids, liquids or gasses can experience or exert pressure.

Units: many different units used depending on field of science: pound-force per square inch (psi), millibars, etc. Below we use Pascals (Newton/meter2) which is about 0.000145 pounds per square inch.
More information on pressure

> COSMIC EXAMPLE
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COSMIC EXAMPLE
Central pressure of a neutron star: 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000, 000,000 or 10 decillion or 10x1033 Pa.

Within the blue-green cloud is a neutron star, an object so compact and dense that the pressure in its center is 10x1033 Pa, far greater than anything found on Earth.
> OLYMPIC EXAMPLE
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OLYMPIC EXAMPLE
Pressure on Olympic contestant to perform well: intense!
> EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
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EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
human blood pressure (15,000 Pa); pressure of atmosphere at sea level (101,325 Pa).

Definition: how much matter an object contains.

The amount of mass that an object has depends on the types of atoms it contains and the total number of atoms*. In other words, mass is the amount of matter. In everyday language, we often interchange "mass" for "weight" but these are two different things. Weight is the mass of an object combined with the forces acting upon it. This means that a person has the same mass on the surface of the Earth as they do in space or anywhere else, but not necessarily the same weight.
*This applies to visible or normal matter, though most matter is dark
Units: kilograms (kg), pounds (lb), solar masses
More information on mass

> COSMIC EXAMPLE
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COSMIC EXAMPLE
Mass of Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*): 4 million solar masses or 8 x 1036 kg.

The center of our Milky Way galaxy contains a giant black hole with the mass equivalent to about 4 million Suns, or about 8x1036 kg.
> OLYMPIC EXAMPLE
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OLYMPIC EXAMPLE
Men's shotput: 7.26 kg (16.01 lb)
> EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
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EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
Adult Golden Retriever mass: 36 kg (80 lbs)

Definition: how much mass is in a certain volume

The density of an object or a substance is the amount of mass it contains in a volume. Density is derived from the mass of the atoms and molecules that make up a material and how tightly packed these are in a certain space. It can be determined for various states of matter, including solids, liquids, and gases. One common way to use density is to compare two objects. A piece of driftwood floats on top of water because it has a lower density than the sea below; on the other hand, an iron anchor has a higher density than the salt water so it sinks to the bottom.
Units: kilograms per cubic meter; grams per cubic centimeter, kg/m3.

> COSMIC EXAMPLE
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COSMIC EXAMPLE
Neutron star: These stellar cores, which often emit X-rays that Chandra can detect, are some of the densest objects in the Universe. 1x1018 kg/m3 (1,000,000,000, 000,000,000 kg/m3)

The Cat's Eye Nebula shows a phase that Sun-like stars undergo at the end of their lives. Material from the star's outer layers puffs off, and a hot core is left behind that eventually collapses to become a white dwarf star.
> PARALYMPIC EXAMPLE
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PARALYMPIC EXAMPLE
Sailboat: Boats are largely hollow and float because their total volume has a much lower density than water. Air: 1.2 kg/m3; Water: 1,000 kg/m3
> EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
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EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
Gold: Gold is denser than lead, but less dense than platinum. 19,320 kg/m3

Definition: the change of velocity of an object over time.

When we hear 'acceleration,' we often think of something that is moving very quickly. In fact, the concept of acceleration doesn't rely on how fast an object is moving. Rather, acceleration is defined as the change in speed or the direction it is going. (The combination of speed and direction is known as "velocity.") Therefore, an object moving at any rate can accelerate by speeding up, slowing down, or turning. The ability to do this quickly is important in many aspects of life, from driving an automobile, to performing in sports. It also dictates many characteristics of phenomena in space.
Units: meters/seconds2 (m/s2), miles/hour/second (mi/hr/s), kilometers/hour/second (km/hr/s)

> COSMIC EXAMPLE
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COSMIC EXAMPLE
B1509: The gravitational acceleration on the surface of a neutron star is about a trillion times that on Earth. About three trillion m/s2

At the center of this image is a very young, rapidly spinning neutron star which is spewing energy out into the space around it.
> PARALYMPIC EXAMPLE
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PARALYMPIC EXAMPLE
Elite wheelchair tennis players can accelerate very quickly during sprints. 17 m/s2
> EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
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EVERYDAY EXAMPLE
Porsche 918 Spyder: Performance of cars is often measured in their ability to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph. 12.3 m/s2
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AstrOlympics is supported by NASA with funding under contract NAS8-03060. AstrOlympics was developed by the Chandra X-ray Center,
at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, in Cambridge, MA.

Many thanks to the International Olympic Committee for allowing use of their videos and photos.