The Perkin Observatory hosted Ms. Jackson's Biology students during their introductory unit. Life is an important theme in the Universe. Over the course of several evenings, small groups of students visited the Observatory to study some of the conditions necessary for life (as we know it) and the possibility of life on other worlds.
Each student viewed a globular cluster through the telescope. Globular clusters have hundreds of thousands of stars bounded in a spherical shape due to gravity. Seeing the globular with their own eyes encouraged students to imagine the multitude of stars in the Universe and, indirectly, the even greater number of worlds that go around these stars. If there are countless worlds, what are the chances that we are alone?
Students pointed out that life needs water in addition to an energy source (after just glimpsing hundreds of thousands of them!), and they viewed a slideshow of images of other worlds in our solar system that all have water on them, in one form or another. The Moon and Mars both have frozen water. Europa, a moon of Jupiter, appears to have a deep ocean of liquid water beneath its thick surface of ice. In images of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, we see water vapor spewing from geysers. Comets are made of ice, and just this year water vapor was detected on the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. We know life is rare in the solar system, but it appears that some of the ingredients for life are not rare at all.
Curious about the habitability of other worlds beyond our solar system, students learned about how NASA's space telescope Kepler is discovering exoplanets (planets outside the solar system in orbit around other stars). Kepler measures the brightness of individual stars very precisely over time; when a periodic dip in brightness occurs, we know something is blocking some light as it moves across the face of a star. Looking at only a tiny swath of the Milky Way, Kepler has identified over 3,000 exoplanet candidates. As the data continues to be analyzed, it is expected that the vast majority of the candidates will be confirmed exoplanets. Click here to check out the current list of confirmed exoplanets!
How many of these worlds are in the "Goldilocks" zone, such that there may be liquid water? If conditions for life are not rare, might the Universe be teeming with life?
Our telescope in the Perkin Observatory has the power to detect the dimming of stars due to exoplanet transits, and we are developing our imaging capabilities that may allow us to perform this kind of research. Perhaps a project for future Biology students... Thanks, again, to Ms. Jackson and her students for collaborating with the Observatory!