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Knit the Universe

A whole new kind of space craft.


Take a look at our beautiful ‘Knit Kits’.

From left to right: the original image of GW Orionis, a rare triple-star system, the pattern, and then the finished knit.

From Kraus et al (2020). A triple-star system with a misaligned and warped circumstellar disk shaped by disk tearing. Science, 369(6508), 1233-1238. Reprinted and adapted with permission from AAAS.

We have converted amazing, cutting-edge astrophysical images and findings, e.g. a gravitational wave ‘chirp’ or intersecting dusty discs around stars, into cute knitting patterns. We call these our Knit Kits. These each take about two to six hours to complete.

Each Knit Kit tells the story of the people and the science behind the image. Each one tells us a little about the fabric of the universe, what we call ‘spacetime’.

The Knit Kits are free and can be found below.

With some knitting needles and a few bits of wool, you can knit your own square of inspirational spacetime.

You can knit a few, then stitch them together as a scarf that would make Doctor Who proud. Or knit many and make a throw or blanket. For a Duke of Edinburgh skills project perhaps?

Or gather up squares to make throws or blankets that you, your families, schools and community groups put together. We want to hear about them all on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Please share images of your knitted squares and projects on social media using @knittheuniverse on all platforms.

Download the knit kits

Knit Kit 1 – A Rose in the Reaches

Level: experienced

This stunning image shows gas and dust swirling around three young stars.

In September 2020, Professor Stefan Kraus and his team in Exeter announced a fascinating star system. Using a set of telescopes in Chile called the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), they had tracked this star system for more than 11 years.

They used these 11 years of measurements to work out the path that the three stars took orbiting each other. Then, once they knew how the stars moved, they used physics and maths to calculate how gas and dust might move around the stars to create the stunning image in our Knit Kit.

Download the Knit Kit (PDF, 331KB).

Read more about this discovery.

Knit Kit 2 – Of Ripples and Rings

Level: intermediate

This image shows the ringed structure of the star system from Knit Kit 1, as seen by the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), a telescope in Chile.

ALMA does not look like a typical telescope, instead it uses dishes like satellite dishes. High in the Andes mountains in Chile, one of the driest places on Earth, these dishes point to the sky. They span a huge area in the mountains – the two furthest dishes are about 16km apart.

This image is beautiful and reminds us of ripples and rings.

Download the Knit Kit (PDF, 189KB).

Find out more about the telescopes that saw these rings and ripples.

Knit Kit 3 – The First Chirp

Level: beginner

Have you ever been in the right place at the right time? Arriving at a party just in time for your favourite song? The scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) have.

LIGO has two labs, both in the US; one in the north-west, and the other in the south-east. They started building the sites in the 1990s, and by 2010 they had searched for five years without finding anything.

LIGO was shut down for some big upgrades and reopened in 2015. Two days after it was turned back on, a big gravitational wave – the very thing that they were looking for – passed through Earth. This discovery was the first ever detection of gravitational waves, and proved that Albert Einstein’s theory from almost 100 years before was right. The project team won the Nobel Prize for Physics for this discovery in 2017.

This Knit Kit shows a graph from that project, from the first ever detection of gravitational waves. We call this a chirp because that is what it sounds like. This image shows the first chirp ever heard.

Download the Knit Kit (PDF, 189KB).

You can find out more about gravitational waves in Knit Kit 4: Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey (below), and read more about LIGO.

Knit Kit 4 – Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey

Level: experienced

In 1915, Albert Einstein published a new theory called ‘general relativity’ that helps us understand how gravity bends time and space.

General relativity treats time and space as one thing, like a stretchy sheet of ‘spacetime’ that can be bent by massive objects resting on it. When something massive like the sun and the planets move around each other, it sends out ripples and waves across the sheet. A bit like ripples and wobbles when you bounce on a trampoline.

These ripples stretch space and time, and are called gravitational waves. As they pass through the Earth, the Earth gets very slightly smaller and wider in the peaks of the wave, and taller and thinner in the troughs of the wave. Yes really.

In 2015, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detected these gravitational waves for the very first time. They made two beams of light race down two identical 4km tubes at right angles to each other. As a gravitational wave passes the Earth, one tube becomes very, very slightly shorter than the other. Light always moves at the same speed, so the light in the shorter tube arrives back to the starting point very, very slightly earlier than in the other tube.

This Knit Kit shows the ripples in spacetime from the first gravitational waves ever detected. Here, these ripples are from two black holes merging. As Dr Who would say ‘wibbly wobbly timey wimey’.

Download the Knit Kit (PDF, 160KB).

Read more about gravitational waves.

Knit Kit 5 – Earth’s LISA

Level: intermediate

The gravitational wave detectors we have on Earth are big at a few kilometres long, but the next set of detectors will be out of this world – even bigger than the Earth.

This Knit Kit shows the planned setup for the European Space Agency’s (ESA) gravitational wave detector LISA, set to launch in 2034. LISA stands for the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna. Three probes high above the Earth millions of kilometres apart will aim lasers at each other and be detected by mirrors.

The idea is the same as in Knit Kit 4, but in the case of LISA there are no tubes. Scientists will race two beams of light along lines of the same length, to check if a passing gravitational wave will stretch or shrink one of them.

With a detector this big, scientists hope to be able to detect some of the biggest events in the universe and even predict black-hole mergers before they happen.

Download the Knit Kit (PDF, 280KB).

Read more about LISA.

Knit Kit 6 – Golden Eye

Level: beginner

This Knit Kit shows the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This telescope is the largest, most powerful one ever launched into space and will change the way we understand the universe.

You might think that all telescopes look like a long thin tube, on top of a tripod. Those are an important type of telescope, but there are lots of kinds. Here, the JWST is another type of telescope, called a Newtonian reflector. It looks a bit like a satellite dish.

This telescope has a big mirror that reflects light from the object towards a light sensor. The telescope’s mirror is golden, because that is even better at collecting the kind of light that the sensor is designed for.

It works a bit like a bucket collecting rainwater, where the width of the bucket represents the size of the mirror. A small bucket with a small opening will not catch a lot of rainwater, a raindrop has to fall in just the right place for it to fall into the bucket. But a huge bucket with a massive width is going to collect every raindrop that falls into it. In the same way, a bigger mirror collects more light than a small one.

We think it looks like a golden eye that can play ‘I spy with my little eye’ in space as it looks out into the cosmos.

Download the Knit Kit (PDF, 309KB).

Find out more about the James Webb Space Telescope.

Knit Kit 7 – Iron Rain

Level: intermediate

Stars are like people: they come in all shapes and sizes, each one is unique, and each one interesting.

Some stars are bigger, others are smaller. Some are hot, others cold, some are old, others young. The star in this Knit Kit is a very small and cold star, which fits into a group called brown dwarfs.

Brown dwarfs are not big and heavy enough to burn fuel like other stars, so they are not as hot. So, instead of glowing white hot like our sun, they glow red when they are young, then slowly dim and change colour to brown as they get older.

In 2014, a group of physicists studied the weather patterns of a brown dwarf star. Similar to Earth, they found that the star has clouds but they’re much hotter and made of sand, and instead of raining water, it rains iron. Yes, clouds made of sand and it rains molten iron. Amazing.

Download the Knit Kit (PDF, 224KB).

Find out more about brown dwarfs.

Knit Kit 8 – A Star Scale Sneeze

Level: intermediate

We have all seen or felt the sun. Even though it is the brightest thing in our sky, it is not a very bright star. It is actually a little dimmer than most and only looks so bright because it is so near to us.

Our sun is not exceptional as stars go, but it is still unique, very interesting and very special to us. By a long way, it is the most studied star partly because it is so ordinary, and so close to us.

And did you know, our sun can sneeze?

Huge eruptions happen on the sun throwing off huge amounts of star stuff into its upper atmosphere, making plumes many times bigger than the Earth.

If we can better understand how our sun works, we can use that knowledge to make a guess at how other stars work – how they are born, how they burn fuel, what goes on in their atmospheres and how they shape the universe around them.

Have a go at this star scale sneeze in this snotty Knit Kit.

Download the Knit Kit (PDF, 202KB).

Want to find out more about coronal mass ejections? Check this out.

Knit Kit 9 – Pluto’s Heart

Level: beginner

Pluto seems to be one of the most romantic places we will ever come across in our solar system. It has a heart.

But that heart is made of ice that melts during the day and causes icy winds to blow across Pluto’s surface.

Years ago, we were taught that Pluto was a planet, but in 2003 astronomers discovered a dwarf planet nearby. This new dwarf planet was later called Eris. Eris is a dwarf planet and in 2006 Pluto itself was renamed as a dwarf planet.

Dwarf planets are similar to planets because they orbit the sun, hold their (round) shape and are not the moon of something else. But they also share their orbit with other objects because, unlike planets, they don’t have enough mass to sweep their orbit clean.

This Knit Kit shows one of the most detailed images of Pluto we have ever seen. It was taken by Nasa spacecraft New Horizons in 2015 after a nine-year journey to get to close enough.

A beautiful image of Pluto’s cold, cold heart.

Download the Knit Kit (PDF, 236KB).

Check out this Pluto fact sheet.

And find out more about the dwarf planets.

Knit Kit 10 – A Pale Blue Dot

Level: beginner

The picture of Earth in this Knit Kit was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft from around 6 billion kilometres away, just before it left our Solar System.

The image became well-known thanks to Professor Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan’s reflection on this image helps give us perspective on our place in the universe.

As he said most eloquently: “It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”

This Knit Kit helps remind us of how beautiful our pale blue dot, our home, is.

Download the Knit Kit (PDF, 153KB).

Watch the full video by Carl Sagan, a famous astronomer who inspired millions.

NB Before showing this to younger children, adults may want to watch the whole video, as it covers more challenging topics towards the end.

Find out more about Sagan, who wrote and read the passage in the video above.

A quilted pattern depicting planets and space

A knitted blanket. Image credit: Jill Martin

Instructions and how to knit

For the Knit Kits, we used a type of wool called double knit (DK), which tells you how thick the thread is. We used 4mm needles, this is how thick the needles are. Taken together this makes the stitches a certain size.

All of the Knit Kits are made the same way, which is using the stocking, or stockinette, stitch. That is a fancy way of saying knit one row, purl the next, knit the row after that, then purl a row and so on. All of our Knit Kits are 40 stitches by 40 rows.

We also say in each Knit Kit what colours and weight of wool we recommend, but feel free to knit with whatever colours you have. Swap the colours as you like, and use the wool and needles you have available.

Once you have finished the pattern, cast off from the needles and wash and block your square (wet it, squeeze out the excess water, then stretch it and pin it in shape to a cork board or something similar). It will hold its shape much better after it’s been washed and blocked.

Some of you will be knitting for the first time. To help you along, here are some links to get you started. Or ask a friend or relative, it is surprising who knits when you ask. The Knit Kits do not take much wool, especially for the minor colours. You can find supplies from a local craft store or online shop, or ask around to see if anyone you know has some spare wool.

About

Read more

Dr Kate Macdonald came up with the idea of Knit the Universe as a way to explore the amazing images coming from the LIGO project.

She was inspired after hearing the absolutely mind-boggling answer to a question put to Professor Martin Hendry of the University of Glasgow: how often do black holes collide and make gravitational waves? To which he replied – taking into account ifs, buts, ands and maybes, about once every 10-15 minutes. The universe really is that enormously big.

Bringing these amazing images from the cosmos as knitted squares gives the notion of the fabric of spacetime, a tangible expression, if you like, a map or a song-line through the universe, to be wondered at, to be marvelled at, to inspire.

Dr Brynley Pearlstone is a science communicator with a background in astrophysics, having earned his PhD in gravitational wave astrophysics at Glasgow university’s prestigious Institute for Gravitational Research. His flagship project SciCurious launched in 2019 following a grant from IOP Scotland (IOPS).

Acknowledgements

Thanks to

Our thanks to Knit the Universe’s science collaborators: Dr Claire Davies, Professor Stefan Kraus, Dr Alison Young, Dr Brynley Pearlstone, Dr Daniel Williams, Laurence Datrier, Professor Harald Pfeiffer, Professor Martin Hendry, Dr Olivia Jones, Dr Peter Levens, Dr Nic Labrosse, Dr Angus Bell and Dr Beth Biller.

We’re especially grateful to our expert team of test knitters: Dr Karen Vernon-Parry, Gordon Shand, Joe Hennell, and Dr Brynley Pearlstone. And to the team at IOPS: Mikey Jarrell, Dr Kate Macdonald, Dr Rebecca Douglas, Alison McLure and John Maher.

And also to the core team behind Knit the Universe – Dr Kate Macdonald, Dr Brynley Pearlstone, Muza Farid and Mikey Jarrell.