In this activity students work together in groups or as individuals on computers to understand how we can use photometric observations of stars to discover exoplanets.
The concept prerequisites for the activity include: blackbody radiation, Kepler's laws, stellar habitable zones.
During the activity, students use computers to access the webpages displaying the Kepler lightcurve data. A python script is used by the instructor to automatically download this data and generate these webpages for any given Kepler object ID. Additional web pages help them to visualize a scale diagram of the exoplanet system and compare the sensitivity of their own eyes to the Kepler spacecraft.
This activity was performed in a "lab" session of the Astro S-8 class, but could easily be used as an in-class activity. Students use the pre-constructed web pages to interactively explore lightcurve data from the Kepler spacecraft in a web browser. In this way, they can identify transits (dips in the brightness of the star) caused by exoplanets as they transit the disc of their host star. Using tools provided on the web page, students fit the parameters of the planetary transit (period, amplitude, and duration). Using these fit parameters, the students calculate the parameters of the planetary system (planet radius and distance from star) and answer questions posed to make them think about the nature and limitations of the data.
The instruction manual attached explains to students how to calculate the parameters of the planetary system in some detail. This activity might work better if the students are asked to think about the geometry of the system and derive these relations themselves.
The instruction manual and the python script are attached.