Teachable Moments | November 7, 2019
A Teachable Moment in the Sky: The Transit of Mercury
In the News
It only happens about 13 times a century and won’t happen again until 2032, so don’t miss the transit of Mercury on Monday, Nov. 11! A transit happens when a planet crosses in front of a star. From our perspective on Earth, we only ever see two planets transit the Sun: Mercury and Venus. This is because these are the only planets between us and the Sun. (Transits of Venus are especially rare. The next one won’t happen until 2117.) During the upcoming transit of Mercury, viewers around Earth (using the proper safety equipment) will be able to see a tiny dark spot moving slowly across the disk of the Sun.
Read on to learn how transits contributed to past scientific discoveries and for a look at how scientists use them today. Plus, find resources for engaging students in this rare celestial event!
Why It's Important
Then and Now
In the early 1600s, Johannes Kepler discovered that both Mercury and Venus would transit the Sun in 1631. It was fortunate timing: The telescope had been invented just 23 years earlier, and the transits of both planets wouldn’t happen in the same year again until 13425. Kepler didn’t survive to see the transits, but French astronomer Pierre Gassendi became the first person to see the transit of Mercury. Poor weather kept other astronomers in Europe from seeing it. (Gassendi attempted to view the transit of Venus the following month, but inaccurate astronomical data led him to mistakenly believe it would be visible from his location.) It was soon understood that transits could be used as an opportunity to measure apparent diameter – how large a planet appears from Earth – with great accuracy.
STEM Lessons for Educators
Bring the wonder of space to your students. Explore our collection of standards-aligned lessons featuring NASA missions and science.
After observing the transit of Mercury in 1677, Edmond Halley predicted that transits could be used to accurately measure the distance between the Sun and Earth, which wasn’t known at the time. This could be done by having observers at distant points on Earth look at the variation in a planet’s apparent position against the disk of the Sun – a phenomenon known as parallax shift. This phenomenon is what makes nearby objects appear to shift more than distant objects when you look out the window of a car, for example.
Today, radar is used to measure the distance between Earth and the Sun with greater precision than transit observations. But the transits of Mercury and Venus still provide scientists with opportunities for scientific investigation in two important areas: exospheres and exoplanets.
Some objects, like the Moon and Mercury, were originally thought to have no atmosphere. But scientists have discovered that these bodies are actually surrounded by an ultrathin atmosphere of gases called an exosphere. Scientists want to better understand the composition and density of the gases in Mercury’s exosphere, and transits make that possible.
“When Mercury is in front of the Sun, we can study the exosphere close to the planet,” said NASA scientist Rosemary Killen. “Sodium in the exosphere absorbs and re-emits a yellow-orange color from sunlight, and by measuring that absorption, we can learn about the density of gas there.”
When Mercury transits the Sun, it causes a slight dip in the Sun’s brightness as it blocks a tiny portion of the Sun’s light. Scientists discovered they could use that phenomenon to search for planets orbiting distant stars. These planets, called exoplanets, are otherwise obscured from view by the light of their star. When measuring the brightness of far-off stars, a slight recurring dip in the light curve (a graph of light intensity) could indicate an exoplanet orbiting and transiting its star. NASA’s Kepler space telescope found more than 2,700 exoplanets by looking for this telltale drop in brightness. NASA’s TESS mission is surveying 200,000 of the brightest stars near our solar system and is expected to potentially discover more than 10,000 transiting exoplanets.
Additionally, scientists have been exploring the atmospheres of exoplanets. Similarly to how we study Mercury’s exosphere, scientists can observe the spectra – a measure of light intensity and wavelength – that passes through an exoplanet’s atmosphere. As a result, they’re beginning to understand the evolution and composition of exoplanet atmospheres, as well as the influence of stellar wind and magnetic fields.
During the transit of Mercury, the planet will appear as a tiny dot on the Sun’s surface. To see it, you’ll need a telescope or binoculars outfitted with a special solar filter.
WARNING! Looking at the Sun directly or through a telescope without proper protection can lead to serious and permanent vision damage. Do not look directly at the Sun without a certified solar filter.
The transit of Mercury will be partly or fully visible across much of the globe. However, it won’t be visible from Australia or most of Asia and Alaska.
Mercury’s trek across the Sun begins at 4:35 a.m. PST (7:35 a.m. EST), meaning viewers on the East Coast of the U.S. can experience the entire event, as the Sun will have already risen before the transit begins. By the time the Sun rises on the West Coast, Mercury will have been transiting the Sun for nearly two hours. Fortunately, the planet will take almost 5.5 hours to completely cross the face of the Sun, so there will be plenty of time for West Coast viewers to witness this event. See the transit map below to learn when and where the transit will be visible.
Don’t have access to a telescope or binoculars with a solar filter? Visit the Night Sky Network website to find events near you where amateur astronomers will have viewing opportunities available.
During the transit, NASA will share near-real-time images of the Sun directly from the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Beginning at 4:41 a.m. PST (7:41 a.m. EST) you can see images of Mercury passing in front of the Sun at NASA’s 2019 Mercury Transit page, with updates through the end of the transit at 10:04 a.m. PST (1:04 p.m. EST).
If you’re in the U.S., don’t miss the show, as this is the last time a transit will be visible from the continental United States until 2049!
Use these lessons and activities to engage students in the transit of Mercury and the hunt for planets beyond our solar system:
Exploring Exoplanets with Kepler
Students use math concepts related to transits to discover real-world data about Mercury, Venus and planets outside our solar system.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Sun Screen: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
When Mercury passes in front of the Sun, how much sunlight is lost on Earth? Students use the mathematical constant pi to find the solution in this illustrated math challenge.
Time < 30 mins
Solar Sleuth: A 'Pi in the Sky' Math Challenge
In this illustrated math problem, students use pi and data from the Kepler space telescope to find the size of a planet outside our solar system.
Time < 30 mins
Can You Spot Mercury?
Play science sleuth and see if you can spot Mercury passing in front of – or transiting – the sun in these images from NASA.
Oh, the Places We Go: 18 Ways NASA Uses Pi
Whether it's sending spacecraft to other planets, driving rovers on Mars, finding out what planets are made of or how deep alien oceans are, pi takes us far at NASA. Find out how pi helps us explore space.
- NASA near-real-time transit images
- Video: What’s Up – November 2019
- 2019 Mercury Transit Map
- Night Sky Network Events
- NASA Museum Alliance Resources
- Exoplanet Exploration Website
- Interactive: 5 Ways to Find a Planet
- Interactive: Eyes on Exoplanets
- Posters: Exoplanet Travel Bureau
- Video: What’s in an Exoplanet Name?
- Video: The Search for Another Earth
- Kepler Mission Website
- Kepler Education Activities
Check out these related resources for kids from NASA’s Space Place:
TAGS: K-12 Education, Teachers, Students, Educators, Mercury, Transit, Transit of Mercury, What's Up, Astronomy, Resources for Educators, Exoplanets, Kepler, TESS
Teachable Moments | March 9, 2018
Pi Goes the Distance at NASA
Update: March 15, 2018 – The answers to the 2018 NASA Pi Day Challenge are here! View the illustrated answer key
In the News
The 2018 NASA Pi Day Challenge
Can you solve these stellar mysteries with pi? Click to get started.
Pi Day, the annual celebration of one of mathematics’ most popular numbers, is back! Representing the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, pi has many practical applications, including the development and operation of space missions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The March 14 holiday is celebrated around the world by math enthusiasts and casual fans alike – from memorizing digits of pi (the current Pi World Ranking record is 70,030 digits) to baking and eating pies.
JPL is inviting people to participate in its 2018 NASA Pi Day Challenge – four illustrated math puzzlers involving pi and real problems scientists and engineers solve to explore space, also available as a free poster! Answers will be released on March 15.
Why March 14?
Pi is what’s known as an irrational number, meaning its decimal representation never ends and it never repeats. It has been calculated to more than one trillion digits, but NASA scientists and engineers actually use far fewer digits in their calculations (see “How Many Decimals of Pi Do We Really Need?”). The approximation 3.14 is often precise enough, hence the celebration occurring on March 14, or 3/14 (when written in U.S. month/day format). The first known celebration occurred in 1988, and in 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi.
NASA’s Pi Day Challenge
Lessons: Pi in the Sky
Explore the entire NASA Pi Day Challenge lesson collection, including free posters and handouts!
To show students how pi is used at NASA and give them a chance to do the very same math, the JPL Education Office has once again put together a Pi Day challenge featuring real-world math problems used for space exploration. This year’s challenge includes exploring the interior of Mars, finding missing helium in the clouds of Jupiter, searching for Earth-size exoplanets and uncovering the mysteries of an asteroid from outside our solar system.
Here’s some of the science behind this year’s challenge:
Scheduled to launch May 5, 2018, the InSight Mars lander will be equipped with several scientific instruments, including a heat flow probe and a seismometer. Together, these instruments will help scientists understand the interior structure of the Red Planet. It’s the first time we’ll get an in-depth look at what’s happening inside Mars. On Earth, seismometers are used to measure the strength and location of earthquakes. Similarly, the seismometer on Insight will allow us to measure marsquakes! The way seismic waves travel through the interior of Mars can tell us a lot about what lies beneath the surface. This year’s Quake Quandary problem challenges students to determine the distance from InSight to a hypothetical marsquake using pi!
Also launching in spring is NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, mission. TESS is designed to build upon the discoveries made by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope by searching for exoplanets – planets that orbit stars other than our Sun. Like Kepler, TESS will monitor hundreds of thousands of stars across the sky, looking for the temporary dips in brightness that occur when an exoplanet passes in front of its star from the perspective of TESS. The amount that the star dims helps scientists determine the radius of the exoplanet. Like those exoplanet-hunting scientists, students will have to use pi along with data from Kepler to find the size of an exoplanet in the Solar Sleuth challenge.
Jupiter is our solar system’s largest planet. Shrouded in clouds, the planet’s interior holds clues to the formation of our solar system. In 1995, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft dropped a probe into Jupiter’s atmosphere. The probe detected unusually low levels of helium in the upper atmosphere. It has been hypothesized that the helium was depleted out of the upper atmosphere and transported deeper inside the planet. The extreme pressure inside Jupiter condenses helium into droplets that form inside a liquid metallic hydrogen layer below. Because the helium is denser than the surrounding hydrogen, the helium droplets fall like rain through the liquid metallic hydrogen. In 2016, the Juno spacecraft, which is designed to study Jupiter’s interior, entered orbit around the planet. Juno’s initial gravity measurements have helped scientists better understand the inner layers of Jupiter and how they interact, giving them a clearer window into what goes on inside the planet. In the Helium Heist problem, students can use pi to find out just how much helium has been depleted from Jupiter’s upper atmosphere over the planet’s lifetime.
In October 2017, astronomers spotted a uniquely-shaped object traveling in our solar system. Its path and high velocity led scientists to believe ‘Oumuamua, as it has been dubbed, is actually an object from outside of our solar system – the first ever interstellar visitor to be detected – that made its way to our neighborhood thanks to the Sun’s gravity. In addition to its high speed, ‘Oumuamua is reflecting the Sun’s light with great variation as the asteroid rotates on its axis, causing scientists to conclude it has an elongated shape. In the Asteroid Ace problem, students can use pi to find the rate of rotation for ‘Oumuamua and compare it with Earth’s rotation rate.
Join the Conversation
- Join the conversation and share your Pi Day Challenge answers with @NASAJPL_Edu on social media using the hashtag #NASAPiDayChallenge
- Pi Day: What’s Going ‘Round – Tell us what you’re up to this Pi Day and share your stories and photos with NASA.
- Pi in the Sky 5
- Pi in the Sky 4
- Pi in the Sky 3
- Pi in the Sky 2
- Pi in the Sky
- Pi in the Sky Challenge (slideshow for students)
- 18 Ways NASA Uses Pi – Whether it's sending spacecraft to other planets, driving rovers on Mars, finding out what planets are made of or how deep alien oceans are, pi takes us far at NASA. Find out how pi helps us explore space.
- Kepler-186f Travel Poster
- Video: First Interstellar Asteroid Wows Scientists
- Planet Pi
Facts and Figures
TAGS: Pi Day, Math, Science, Engineering, NASA Pi Day Challenge, K-12, Lesson, Activity, Slideshow, Mars, Jupiter, Exoplanets, Kepler, Kepler-186f, Juno, InSight, TESS, ‘Oumuamua, asteroid, asteroids, NEO, Nearth Earth Object
Teachable Moments | August 17, 2015
'Exoplanets' and the Search for Habitable Worlds
In the News
Twenty years after the first discovery of a planet orbiting another sun-like star, scientists have discovered the most Earth-like exoplanet ever: Kepler-452b. Located in the habitable zone of a star very much like our sun, Kepler-452b is only about 60 percent wider than Earth.
What makes it the most Earth-like exoplanet ever discovered?
First a couple definitions: An exoplanet is simply a planet that orbits another star. And the habitable zone? That’s the area around a star in which water has the potential to be liquid -- not so close to the star that all water would evaporate, and not so far that all water would freeze. Think about Goldilocks eating porridge. The habitable zone is not too hot, and not too cold. It’s just right.
Okay, back to Kepler-452b. Out of more than a thousand exoplanets that NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has detected, only 12 have been found in the habitable zone of their stars and are smaller than twice the size of Earth, making Earth-like planets a rarity. Until this discovery, all of them have orbited stars that are smaller and cooler than our sun.
Kepler-452b is the first to be discovered orbiting a star that is about the same size and temperature as our sun. Not only that, but it orbits at nearly the same distance from its star as Earth does from our sun! Conditions on Kepler-452b could be similar to conditions here on Earth and the light you would feel there would be much like the sunlight you feel here on Earth. Scientists believe that Kepler-452b has been in the habitable zone for around six billion years -- longer than Earth has even existed!
How They Did It
The Kepler spacecraft, named for mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, has been working since 2009 to find distant worlds like Kepler-452b. It does so by looking at more than 100,000 stars near the constellation Cygnus. If one of those stars dims temporarily, it could be that an object passed between the spacecraft and the star. If it dims with a repeatable pattern, there’s a good chance an exoplanet is passing by again and again as it orbits the star. The repeated dimming around one of those stars is what led to the discovery of Kepler-452b.
This exciting discovery provides opportunities for students to practice math skills in upper elementary and middle school, and gives high school students a practical application of Kepler’s third law of planetary motion. Take a look below to see where these might fit into your curriculum.
Upper Elementary and Middle School
After learning about Earth’s cousin, students might wonder about a trip to this world. Scientists have calculated the distance between Earth and Kepler-452b at 1,400 light years. A light year is a measure of distance that shows how far light travels in one year. It’s equal to about 10 trillion kilometers (six trillion miles) or, to be more precise, 9,461,000,000,000 kilometers (5,878,000,000,000 miles). Ask students to calculate the distance between Earth and Kepler-452b at various levels of precision, depending on what they are prepared for or learning. For an added challenge, have them determine how long it would take a fast moving spacecraft like Voyager 1 traveling at 61,000 kph (38,000 mph) to reach this new world.
Note: Due to the approximations of spacecraft speed and light year distance used for these problems in both standard and metric units, there is a variation among the answers.
Distance: 10 trillion km x 1,400 = 14,000 trillion km (that’s 14,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers!)
Travel time: 14,000 trillion km ÷ 61,000 kph ÷ 24 ÷ 365 ≈ 26,000,000 years
Distance: 6 trillion miles x 1,400 = 8,400 trillion miles (that’s 8,400,000,000,000,000 miles!)
Travel time: 8,400 trillion miles ÷ 38,000 mph ÷ 24 ÷ 365 ≈ 25,000,000 years
or more precisely…
Distance: 9,461,000,000,000 km x 1,400 = 13,245,400,000,000,000 km
Travel time: 13,245,400,000,000,000 km ÷ 61,000 kph ÷ 24 ÷ 365 ≈ 25,000,000 years
Distance: 5,878,000,000,000 miles x 1,400 = 8,229,200,000,000,000 miles
Travel time: 8,229,200,000,000,000 miles ÷ 38,000 mph ÷ 24 ÷ 365 ≈ 25,000,000 years
or using exponents and powers of 10…
Distance: 9.461 x 1012 x km x 1.4 x 103 = 1.32454 x 1016 km
Travel time: 1.32454 x 1016 km ÷ 6.1 x 104 kph ÷ 2.4 x 101 ÷ 3.65 x 102 ≈ 2.5 x 107 years
Distance: 5.878 x 1012 miles x 1.4 x 103 = 8.2292 x 1015 miles
Travel time: 8.2292 x 1015 miles ÷ 3.8 x 104 mph ÷ 2.4 x 101 ÷ 3.65 x 102 ≈ 2.5 x 107 years
Middle and High School
The time between detected periods of dimming, the duration of the dimming, and the amount of dimming, combined with a little math, can be used to calculate a great deal of information about an exoplanet, such as the length of its orbital period (year), the distance from its star, and its size.
Kepler-452b has an orbital period of 384.84 days -- very similar to Earth’s 365.25 days. Students can use the orbital period to find the distance from its star in astronomical units. An astronomical unit is the average distance between Earth and our Sun, about 150 million kilometers (93 million miles).
Kepler’s 3rd law states that the square of the orbital period is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of an ellipse about the sun. For planets orbiting other stars, we can use R = ∛(T2 ∙ Ms) where R = semi-major axis, T = orbital period in Earth years, and Ms = the mass of the star relative to our sun (the star that Kepler-452b orbits has been measured to be 1.037 times the mass of our sun).
T = 384.84 ÷ 365.25 = 1.05
R = ∛(1.052 ∙ 1.037)
R = ∛1.143 = 1.05 AU
- Exoplanet Travel Bureau Posters
- Video: What’s a “habitable zone?”
- Video: What’s in an Exoplanet Name?
Facts and Figures
TAGS: Exoplanets, Kepler, Kepler-452b, Habitable Zone, Math, Activities, Classroom Activities, Resources