Spot on Science: Exoplanets

WITH NASA’S ANNOUNCEMENT THAT THEY RECENTLY SPOTTED SEVEN EXOPLANETS ORBITING A STAR THAT’S NOT TOO FAR AWAY, IT’S FUN TO IMAGINE JUST HOW DIFFERENT THE PLANETS OUT THERE ARE. MAYBE ONE HAS A SKY THAT’S ORANGE AND ALL THE PLANTS ARE PINK… BUT BEFORE I GET A HEAD OF MYSELF, JUST WHAT IS AN EXOPLANET?

WELL IT TURNS OUT EXOPLANET IS ACTUALLY SHORT FOR EXTRASOLAR PLANET. EXTRA MEANS OUTSIDE OF AND SOLAR REFERS TO OUR SUN, SO AN EXOPLANET IS A PLANET REVOLVING AROUND A STAR THAT ISN’T OUR SUN.

MAKES SENSE. IT’S FAIR TO SAY THAT SINCE THE DAWN OF TIME PEOPLE HAVE BEEN CURIOUS ABOUT WHAT IS OUT THERE IN SPACE AND WHETHER OTHER PLANETS OR BEINGS EXIST. BUT IT WASN’T UNTIL 1995 THAT TWO SWISS ASTRONOMERS DISCOVERED THE FIRST EXOPLANET CALLED 51 PEGASI B.

SINCE THEN NASA HAS REPORTED FINDING ALMOST 3,500 EXOPLANETS WITH MANY OTHERS YET TO BE VERIFIED.  MOST OF THESE ARE ICE GIANTS OR GAS GIANTS, WHICH WOULDN’T MAKE FOR A COMFY HOME. BUT THE MORE ASTRONOMERS LOOK THE MORE THEY FIND PLANETS THAT SEEM LIKE EARTH AND COULD BE HABITABLE.

FINDING EXOPLANETS ISN’T REALLY THAT COMPLICATED IF YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TOOLS AND A GOOD SET OF EYES. THE MAIN WAY THEY ARE DISCOVERED IS BY SCIENTISTS SEARCHING THE SKIES FOR LIGHTS THAT FLICKER IN A PATTERN. WHEN A PLANET ORBITS AROUND ITS STAR, IT BLOCKS OUT SOME OF THE STARS LIGHT. BY PAYING CLOSE ATTENTION THE SCIENTISTS CAN NOTICE THE PATTERN OF THE SHADOW AS THE PLANET PASSES BY.

NASA IS EVEN ASKING REGULAR PEOPLE LIKE YOU AND ME TO HELP SPOT THE PLANETS BY LOOKING THOUGH THE SATELLITE IMAGES THEY HAVE OF SPACE. THERE ARE PHOTOS FROM THE PAST 20 YEARS FOR US TO LOOK THROUGH. I BETTER GET TO WORK FINDING MY PINK PLANET!  I WONDER WHAT I’LL NAME IT?


Instructional Links


Interactive Website: Exoplanets.org | Explore data about exoplanets using charts and graphs.

Video: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum: My Path, Hannah Wakeford, Astronomer

Website: Exoplanets  | Includes FAQs on the planets & research tools for planetary research

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