There is only one planet we know of, so far, that is drenched with life. That planet is Earth, as you may have guessed, and it has all the right conditions for critters to thrive on its surface. Do other planets beyond our solar system, called exoplanets, also host life forms?
Astronomers still don’t know the answer, but they search for potentially habitable planets using a handful of criteria. Ideally, they want to find planets just like Earth, since we know without a doubt that life took root here. The hunt is on for planets about the size of Earth that orbit at just the right distance from their star – in a region termed the habitable zone.
NASA’s Kepler mission is helping scientists in the quest to find these worlds, sometimes called Goldilocks planets after the fairy tale because they orbit where conditions are “just right” for life. Kepler and other telescopes have confirmed a handful so far, all of which are a bit larger than Earth — the Super Earths. The search for Earth’s twin, a habitable-zone planet as small as Earth, is ongoing.
To read more about the search for life in the universe, visit https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/kepler20130717.html#.UebhlIXTovQ .
If you think your students would be interested in searching for habitable planets, check out the NASA Explorer Schools featured lesson, Algeraic Equations: Transit Tracks—Finding Habitable Planets. Students use algebra and Kepler’s 3rd Law to find habitable planets in other solar systems. To access this activity, visit the NES Virtual Campus.
NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered two new planetary systems that include three super-Earth-size planets in the “habitable zone,” the range of distance from a star where the surface temperature of an orbiting planet might be suitable for liquid water.
The Kepler-62 system has five planets; 62b, 62c, 62d, 62e and 62f. The Kepler-69 system has two planets; 69b and 69c. Kepler-62e, 62f and 69c are the super-Earth-sized planets.
Two of the newly discovered planets orbit a star smaller and cooler than the sun. Kepler-62f is only 40 percent larger than Earth, making it the exoplanet closest to the size of our planet known in the habitable zone of another star. Kepler-62f is likely to have a rocky composition. Kepler-62e, orbits on the inner edge of the habitable zone and is roughly 60 percent larger than Earth.
To read more about this discovery and see artists’ renditions of these planets, visit https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/kepler-62-kepler-69.html.
These discoveries are excellent extensions to the NASA Explorer Schools featured lesson, Algebraic Equations: Transit Tracks—Finding Habitable Planets, on the NASA Explorer Schools Virtual Campus.
NASA’s Kepler space telescope has witnessed the effects of a dead star bending the light of its companion star. The findings are among the first detections of this phenomenon — a result of Einstein’s theory of general relativity — in binary star systems.
The dead star, called a white dwarf, is the burnt-out core of what used to be a star like our sun. It is locked in an orbiting dance with its partner, a small “red dwarf” star. While the tiny white dwarf is physically smaller than the red dwarf, it is more massive.
To read more about this discovery and see an animation of the phenomenon, visit https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/kepler20130404.html.
This animation is an excellent extension to the NASA Explorer Schools featured lesson, Algebraic Equations: Transit Tracks—Finding Habitable Planets. To access this lesson, visit the NES Virtual Campus.
A remnant of Kepler’s supernova was recently observed with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. The supernova is the famous explosion that was discovered by Johannes Kepler in 1604. The red, green and blue colors in the image show low, intermediate and high energy X-rays observed with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
As reported in a NASA press release, a new study has used Chandra to identify what triggered the explosion. It had already been shown that the type of explosion was a so-called Type Ia supernova, the thermonuclear explosion of a white dwarf star. These supernovas are important cosmic distance markers for tracking the accelerated expansion of the Universe.
This study is an excellent extension to the NASA Explorer Schools featured lesson, Algebraic Equations: Transit Tracks—Finding Habitable Planets. To access this lesson, visit the NES Virtual Campus.
To see the spectacular image of the Kepler supernova remnant and read more about this discovery, visit Chandra’s Exploring the Invisible Universe website.
NASA is marking two milestones in the search for planets like Earth — the successful completion of the Kepler Space Telescope’s 3½ year prime mission and the beginning of an extended mission that could last as long as four years.
Scientists have used Kepler data to identify more than 2,300 planet candidates and confirm more than 100 planets – teaching us that the galaxy is teeming with planetary systems, that planets are prolific, and hints that nature makes small planets efficiently.
The information at https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/kepler_prime_mission.html is an excellent extension to the NASA Explorer Schools featured lesson, Algebraic Equations: Transit Tracks—Finding Habitable Planets.
A second look at data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is reanimating the claim that the nearby star Fomalhaut hosts a massive exoplanet. The study suggests that the planet, named Fomalhaut b, is a rare and possibly unique object that is completely shrouded by dust.
This article is a great extension for the NASA Explorer Schools lesson, Algebraic Equations: Transit Tracks—Finding Habitable Planets. Access this lesson after logging in to the NES Virtual Campus.
To read more about Fomalhaut’s exoplanet, visit https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/science/fomalhaut-exo.html.
As part of a series of electronic professional development experiences for educators, NASA Explorer Schools and the National Science Teachers Association are hosting a 90-minute live professional development Web seminar for educators on Sept. 19, 2012, at 7:30 p.m. EDT. In this Web seminar, you will learn about an engaging algebra activity called “Finding Habitable Planets” that allows students to analyze NASA data with the hopes of discovering planets in habitable zones of solar systems.
For more information and to register online, visit http://learningcenter.nsta.org/products/symposia_seminars/NES3/webseminar2.aspx.
Link to the Algebraic Equations: Transit Tracks—Finding Habitable Planets lesson on the Virtual Campus (requires log in).
Link to the NES Virtual Campus home page.
This mottled landscape showing the impact crater Tycho is among the most violent-looking places on our moon. Astronomers didn’t aim NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to study Tycho, however. The image was taken in preparation to observe the transit of Venus across the sun’s face on June 5-6.
Hubble cannot look at the sun directly, so astronomers are planning to point the telescope at Earth’s moon, using it as a mirror to capture reflected sunlight and isolate the small fraction of the light that passes through Venus’s atmosphere. Imprinted on that small amount of light are the fingerprints of the planet’s atmospheric makeup.
As the transit of Venus approaches, have your students use transit light curve data gathered by the Kepler mission to calculate the size of planets in other solar systems. To complete this lesson, students determine if these planets are in habitable zones. To gain access to Algebraic Equations: Transit Tracks—Finding Habitable Planets, visit the NES Virtual Campus.
To read more and view Hubble’s images of the moon’s impact crater Tycho, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/science/transit-mirror.html
As part of a series of electronic professional development experiences for educators, the NASA Explorer Schools and Learning Environments and Research Network, or LE&RN, projects are hosting a 60-minute live professional development Web seminar for educators on March 8, 2012, at 8 p.m. EST. Discover how an algebra activity called “Finding Habitable Planets” will help you teach students to use their skills to analyze NASA data. Students learn about the possibility of discovering planets in habitable zones of solar systems.
For more information and to register online, visit https://digitalmedia.wufoo.com/forms/nes-webinar-registration-algebraic-equations/.