During the week before spring break, when most students have their sights set on sunny, sandy shores, the Creekview High School Advanced Placement Physics students were looking to the heavens. In collaboration with the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute of Cambridge, Massachusetts, these students remotely manipulated the MicroObservatory telescope, located at the Smithsonian’s Whipple Observatory near Tucson, Arizona, to collect images of distant stars and analyze the images for evidence of exoplanets, planets orbiting stars other than the Sun. After several days of studying the star HATP-36, the students were able to deduce that they had found an exoplanet orbiting this star thus joining the few humans who have detected a planet orbiting a star far beyond our own solar system.
The adventure began when Creekview’s AP Physics teacher Kim Geddes applied to participate in the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute field test for the Laboratory for the Study of Exoplanets: Fostering Data Literacy program. This project is a one to two-week program that allows students to use real telescopes that they access online, become competent in image-processing software, and manipulate interactive models to detect and describe other worlds orbiting stars beyond our own solar system. In order to be selected for participation, Mrs. Geddes was required to attend training in the use of the telescope and planet detection software and participate in individual interviews with project staff. Mrs. Geddes explained, “In addition to the training, I had to complete a lot of independent study and practice to ensure I was proficient in remotely interacting with the telescope and using the software, but I knew it would be worth the extra effort to offer this opportunity to my students.”
The Harvard-Smithsonian Institute chose thirty-eight high schools in the United States to field test the exoplanet laboratory. The Creekview students selected their star HATP-36 from a menu of target stars, and then scheduled the telescope to take images of this star. In order to detect a planet, the students measured the brightness of the star over a period of several hours, and from the telltale, periodic dip in the brightness of HATP-36, they were able to develop a portrait of a planet transiting the star. Each student analyzed individual images and then the class combined their data to assemble a complete portrait of the transiting planet. The students then used the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute’s interactive models to predict the size and condition of the planet and determine its distance from the central star.
The students discovered that the exoplanet orbiting HATP-36 is uninhabitable in that it is only five million miles from the star (closer than Mercury is to our Sun). This exoplanet is roughly 20 times the size of the earth and is essentially a giant ball of gas. Ultimately, the students will compare, combine, and communicate these findings with other students, other schools, and with the Harvard-Smithsonian Institute. When asked to describe what he learned from the project, AP Physics student Adam Miles replied, “I had no idea how much we could learn about a planet just by observing changes in brightness of a star. I definitely have a better understanding of the number of planets that exist beyond our own solar system; this was an eye-opening realization!” Fellow classmate Cara Perrin added, “I liked being able to work with real data and images just like professional astronomers.”
Creekview Planet Hunters from left to right. Front row: Chris Hoover, Adam Miles, Bruce Moshier, Cara Perrin, Caleb Lloyd. Back row: Chris Hough, Jesse Wood, Hazel Tuck, Doug Nulph, Bo Roberts, and Liam Ritchie.