Are we alone? It’s a type of tantalizing mysteries we are able to’t assist however ponder. Earth is teeming with life, together with people clever sufficient to ask such questions. But it surely appears to be the exception in our cosmic neighborhood, the photo voltaic system. Certain, scientists are looking for microbial life on Mars, within the salty liquid water oceans beneath the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and now within the clouds of Venus. However with regards to clever life, the chances of discovering it near house appear fairly slim.
Does that imply there’s no probability we’ll ever discover aliens to change recipes or swap tales with? Not essentially – we simply would possibly have to look slightly farther out. And that’s precisely what scientists have been doing for many years: looking for exoplanets, worlds orbiting faraway stars. They’ve had great success: To this point, NASA’s official rely of those alien worlds is nicely over 4,000, with greater than 5,000 extra candidates ready to be analyzed and presumably added to the listing. Whereas most of them are very completely different from Earth and unlikely to be hospitable to creatures something like us, many others may very nicely be conducive to life as we all know it.
And that is simply the beginning. The story of how we’ve achieved this feat is fairly superb, a story of hundreds of scientists and engineers working collectively throughout a variety of disciplines for many years. In our newest NOVA Lab we’ve created a sport that invitations college students to hitch within the enjoyable, and trains them to make use of the exact same methods that scientists use every single day within the hunt for exoplanets. Right here’s a fast preview:
To start out, gamers watch a quick Mission Intro video that units the scene for the sport: They’ve been chosen to be the lead scientist for the NOVA House Heart’s Galactic Resettlement group, with the job of discovering appropriate exoplanets for displaced aliens desperately looking for new houses.
Now gamers are prepared for Mission 1, the place they meet a consultant of the Plantae, sentient photosynthetic creatures in search of a brand new, CO2-rich world to name house. To assist them, gamers should work by way of a sequence of steps modeled on the work of real-word scientists:
After studying concerning the completely different strategies used to seek out exoplanets, gamers use the transit technique to determine stars that appear to have planets orbiting them. This technique permits them to calculate every planet’s quantity, based mostly on how a lot of the star’s mild it blocks from reaching our telescopes when crossing in entrance.
Subsequent, gamers use the radial velocity technique to measure how a lot the planets are tugging gravitationally on their stars, inflicting them to wobble. This offers an estimation of their mass, which, mixed with the amount derived from the transit technique, permits the participant to calculate every planet’s density. Much less dense planets are more likely to be fuel giants, whereas denser planets are inclined to have rocky surfaces
The third step is to determine the atmospheric composition of every planet they’ve found by analyzing the distinctive absorption spectrum of the star’s mild after passing by way of it. Understanding what molecules are current can inform us what number of heat-absorbing greenhouse gases are current – one other clue to the planet’s temperature – and whether or not there are any biosignature gases which could point out whether or not life is already there.
The ultimate step is to place all this data collectively by putting Habi-tags on every planet that summarize its doubtless circumstances. Now they’re able to decide about the place to ship the Plantae, who will report again on how they fare as soon as they arrive at their new house.
As soon as they’ve despatched the Plantae on their method, gamers are prepared to use the identical instruments and methods to relocate different alien buddies, ones with wants very completely different from the Plantae. In Mission 2, the shoppers are Daysiders and Nightsiders, aliens who share a tidally-locked planet – a world the place one aspect at all times faces its star, whereas the opposite at all times faces away, in the direction of darkness. In Mission 3, Earth’s cats are looking for one other Earth-like planet they will dominate, one with out annoying people and canine. Gamers having an excessive amount of enjoyable to cease can work their method by way of two extra Bonus Missions, that includes the Cala Mari, squid-like creatures in search of a water world, the Flatuencie, whose manta ray-like our bodies are tailored to flying by way of the atmospheres of gaseous “Sizzling Jupiters,” and the sloth-like Li Chen who want a planet with little or no oxygen in its ambiance.
The Exoplanet Lab is a part of the NSF-funded WHIMC venture (What-If Hypothetical Implementations in Minecraft), based mostly on the College of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. WHIMC makes use of Minecraft as a inventive sandbox the place children can discover various variations of Earth – like “What if Earth had no Moon?” – permitting researchers to check how “What If?” hypothetical situations would possibly set off engagement and studying in STEM. Exoplanets present one other implausible playground for this sort of inventive studying, an opportunity for college students not simply to ponder what alien worlds and their inhabitants is likely to be like, however to make use of confirmed scientific strategies to seek out solutions.
LAUNCH THE EXOPLANET LAB