Middle School Planet Hunters

Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory funded the Planet Hunters Educators Guide to help teachers engage students in the search for new worlds. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech/Adler Planetarium/Zooniverse

Middle school science teachers will bring the search for other worlds into their classrooms. Almost 2,000 exoplanets have been discovered orbiting other stars. A few of those discoveries were made by the 300,000 participants in the Planet Hunters citizen science project. The Planet Hunters Educators Guide gives teachers the tools their students need to understand the science of exoplanets.

Modern education standards encourage teachers to use hands-on projects rather than traditional lectures. But time-pressed teachers rarely have the resources to develop these projects on their own. That’s where the science education experts at the Adler Planetarium and Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory come in. They used a series of teacher reviewsclassroom pilot projects, and student workshops to make sure the lesson plans work in the real world while still meeting state science standards.

In the course of nine 45-minute lessons the Guide takes students through a series of team research activities, interactive conversations, and hands-on modeling. During the seventh lesson, for example, students use light bulb stars and paper planets to simulate star systems. The students measure light from the “star” to detect the “planets” in the same way astronomers use the Kepler Space Telescope to detect exoplanets. By the ninth module the students gain an understanding of exoplanet variety, the requirements for habitability, and the way exoplanet properties affect scientific observations. 

They also learn that their contributions to Planet Hunters help do real science. Since 2010, Planet Hunters’ volunteers have identified more than 60 exoplanet candidates in data from the Kepler Space Telescope. The project’s scientists conduct follow-up studies at observatories around the world. So far the professional Planet Hunters have confirmed three amateur exoplanet discoveries:

  • PH1 - This Neptune-sized planet orbits a binary star system which itself orbits another pair of stars. (Astrophysical Journal DOI: 10.1088/0004-637X/768/2/127, arXiv preprint: 1210.3612)
  • PH2 - A Jupiter-sized planet orbits in the habitable zone of a Sun-like star. While a gas giant can’t host life (as we know it), a moon orbiting the planet could. (Astrophysical Journal DOI: 10.1088/0004-637X/776/1/10, arXiv preprint: 1301.0644)
  • PH3c - almost three times larger than Earth, and four times as massive, PH3c orbits its Sun-like star every 66 days. The Kepler scientists missed it because a neighboring gas giant planet warps PH3c's orbit, causing its year to vary by more than ten hours. (Astrophysical Journal DOI: 10.1088/0004-637X/795/2/167, arXiv preprint: 1410.8114)

Now middle school students can join humanity's search for other worlds... and make discoveries of their own.