Chapter 21 The Birth of Stars and the Discovery of Planets outside the Solar System
Collaborative Group Activities
- Your group is a subcommittee of scientists examining whether any of the “hot Jupiters” (giant planets closer to their stars than Mercury is to the Sun) could have life on or near them. Can you come up with places on, in, or near such planets where life could develop or where some forms of life might survive?
- A wealthy couple (who are alumni of your college or university and love babies) leaves the astronomy program several million dollars in their will, to spend in the best way possible to search for “infant stars in our section of the Galaxy.” Your group has been assigned the task of advising the dean on how best to spend the money. What kind of instruments and search programs would you recommend, and why?
- Some people consider the discovery of any planets (even hot Jupiters) around other stars one of the most important events in the history of astronomical research. Some astronomers have been surprised that the public is not more excited about the planet discoveries. One reason that has been suggested for this lack of public surprise and excitement is that science fiction stories have long prepared us for there being planets around other stars. (The Starship Enterprise on the 1960s Star Trek TV series found some in just about every weekly episode.) What does your group think? Did you know about the discovery of planets around other stars before taking this course? Do you consider it exciting? Were you surprised to hear about it? Are science fiction movies and books good or bad tools for astronomy education in general, do you think?
- What if future space instruments reveal an earthlike exoplanet with significant amounts of oxygen and methane in its atmosphere? Suppose the planet and its star are 50 light-years away. What does your group suggest astronomers do next? How much effort and money would you recommend be put into finding out more about this planet and why?
- Discuss with your group the following question: which is easier to find orbiting a star with instruments we have today: a jovian planet or a proto-planetary disk? Make a list of arguments for each side of this question.
- (This activity should be done when your group has access to the internet.) Go to the page which indexes all the publicly released Hubble Space Telescope images by subject: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/browse/image/. Under “Star,” go to “Protoplanetary Disk” and find a system—not mentioned in this chapter—that your group likes, and prepare a short report to the class about why you find it interesting. Then, under “Nebula,” go to “Emission” and find a region of star formation not mentioned in this chapter, and prepare a short report to the class about what you find interesting about it.
- There is a “citizen science” website called Planet Hunters (http://www.planethunters.org/) where you can participate in identifying exoplanets from the data that Kepler provided. Your group should access the site, work together to use it, and classify two light curves. Report back to the class on what you have done.
- Yuri Milner, a Russian-American billionaire, recently pledged ?100 million to develop the technology to send many miniaturized probes to a star in the Alpha Centauri triple star system (which includes Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to us, now known to have at least one planet.) Each tiny probe will be propelled by powerful lasers at 20% the speed of light, in the hope that one or more might arrive safely and be able to send back information about what it’s like there. Your group should search online for more information about this project (called “Breakthrough: Starshot”) and discuss your reactions to this project. Give specific reasons for your arguments.