Exoplanets (Lesson Plan)

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This is one of topics that we’re doing because I found an awesome book about it in the local library (Exoplanets by Michael Summers and James Trefill). Exoplanets is one of those exciting frontiers where the technology has hit a tipping point and we get significant new discoveries every month or so. Maybe we’ll run out of steam like a lot of other areas (e.g. manned space exploration), but for now it’s fun to feel like there’s at least one area where humanity is making almost weekly leaps.

If I had artistic abilities, my dream job would be NASA conceptual artist. It uses the scientific in service of the aesthetic. We’re visual creatures; that’s why, as juvenile as it is, I think the best thing NASA could do to encourage interest in space is to put resources into stunning visuals that provide that human eye-view perspective. There are a few, and maybe someday I’ll do a post about them, but for now the conceptual artists get to derive their visuals of exoplanets from theory and bare-bones observations, but they are still stunning and worth checking out.

Lesson:

Our telescopes are becoming good enough that we can start to detect planets that are revolving around other stars. These are called “exoplanets.” We can detect these planets by seeing the shadow they make when they pass in front of their star. We can also detect the wobbling of the star from the planet’s gravity. We just got to this point with our telescopes, so we’re discovering new exoplanets every day.  We can see what type of gas is in their atmosphere by looking at the starlight that bounces off their atmosphere. We’ve discovered a lot of very interesting planets, like

  • 55 Cancrie, which is a world made out of diamond. The sky is glowing green and yellow. The planet is black, but it has volcanoes that shoot out liquid diamonds that harden into normal diamonds and rain back down on earth. In the sky at night, you would see northern lights, or lights that dance around the sky from the planet’s magnetism, that are bright enough to read books by.
  • We also know that there are rogue planets, or planets that are floating in the deep, dark of space that aren’t attached to a star. Often they were going around a star but got ejected. They’re very hard to detect, but there are probably billions of them floating around our galaxy, and in fact there are probably more rogue planets than there are planets circling around stars. Interestingly, there may still be life on the planets that feed off the heat inside the planets, but those planets would be living in a perpetual state of dark night.
  • Some planets that are far-away from their stars are so cold that they are covered with ice that is as hard as iron.
  • Scientists think that there are planets that have a lot of small lakes and streams, but no big oceans. One of these planets, Kepler 186f, orbits around a red dwarf which doesn’t give off much light, so if it has plants then all of the plants are probably black in order to absorb as much heat as possible.
  • Some exoplanets may be “water worlds,” which are covered in oceans hundreds of miles deep. At these depths, water turns into strange forms that we have never seen on earth.
  • Right now scientists are trying to find planets that have certain gases that are created by life such as oxygen. If they find a planet that is oxygen-rich, then that’s a good indicator that there is life there.
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