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Summer Career Connections Session 5, Day 4, Astrophysics: Extrasolar Planets

Posted by on Thursday, July 20, 2023 in blog, SAVY.

Our exoplanet explorers had a great day today!  We discussed awesome equations (with a black hole aside), watched light interact with matter, then worked through our data sources with an eye toward getting the most out of the data that we possibly can!


So much of astronomy revolves around ORBITS and of course, there’s an equation for it 🙂  To talk about orbits, we had to look at Kepler’s laws of planetary motion: 

1) orbits/trajectories are″>conic sections</a>  

2) orbiters move faster when closer to gravitational source from class and another and the big one, number 3) the period of an orbiter is related to the orbital distance and the masses involved (and used Newton’s version thereof).  This super important equation works for ALL things that have orbiters (moons, planets, stars, star clusters, galaxies…).  Here’s a fun applet to test out doing some orbiting and some students compared this to the video game Kerbal Space Program that includes “realistic aerodynamic and orbital physics” – recommended for those who love space travel!


Anyway, the cause of gravity and how orbits behave is the curvature of spacetime (otherwise known as General Relativity).  One of the extremes of the curvature of spacetime is a black hole so we of course had to discuss those.  Talk to your student about 3-dimensional 

example 1

example 2 versus 2-dimensional representations and also about spaghettification 😉


For further information about black holes, here’s a nice overview video: Black Hole.  There’s also cool Kurzgesagt In a Nutshell The Largest Black Hole in the Universe – Size Comparison.


We also discussed the†barycenter of the Solar System after a student asked if the Sun moves in response to the planets (it totally does!).


One of the favorite things students did today was see light through diffraction gratings!!  This is part of SPECTROSCOPY and can help us determine composition (fingerprints!), motion toward or away, spin rate, stuff about magnetism, binarity, all sorts of awesome stuff!!  As we spectroscopists say, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a spectrum is worth a thousand pictures 😉  If you’re interested, here are some double-axi and glasses and some single-axis ones.  These light fingerprints are called spectral lines and every element has them.  Spectroscopy is also my personal field of study so I love breaking up the light into various components 🙂


After lunch, we hit the computer lab!  Students again worked with the Filtergraph site where I’ve used an API grab to upload data daily from the NASA Exoplanet Archive : Filtergraph Exoplanets (VandyAstroLab version) and in the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia.  Once folks settled down a bit and got to know the databases and interfaces more thoroughly, I was really impressed with what folks ended up figuring out and determining for their research questions!


To end the day, we again did impromptu speaking with the added level TWO!  Ask about it 🙂


Questions for your dinner table:

  • What sorts of things on Earth could you examine with spectroscopy (light fingerprints)?
  • What big important equations did you learn about?
  • What ways of scientific thinking and examining context did you work with today, especially with extrasolar planet data?
  • What’s so important about including the phrase “For extrasolar planets found so far” in your research question?
  • What research question did you design?


Have a great evening!

Dr. G 🙂