Exoplanet Atmospheres Science: Determining Atmospheric Composition of Exoplanets

written by
Shannon Willoughby and Rebecca Vieyra
edited by
Caroline Hall

This lecture tutorial by the NASA Space Science Education Consortium introduces students to the idea of how spectroscopy can provide information about the atmospheric composition of planets outside our solar system. Students interpret graphs and examine spectral patterns to explore how astronomers identify elements in a distant planet's atmosphere using space and Earth-based spectroscopy instruments. This resource is appropriate for a course in introductory astronomy or within an algebra-based high school physics course.

This Lecture Tutorial is the guiding activity in the NASA-SSEC Exoplanet Atmospheres Digi Kit, a project funded by NASA and Temple University.

Editor's Note:See Supplementary document titled, "Teacher's Notes", developed specifically to support this Lecture Tutorial. Teacher's Notes provides background information on blackbody radiation, the transit method of exoplanet detection, and emission/absorption spectra. It can be used as a refresher for teachers or as a flipped lesson for high school students.

Waves and Their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer (HS-PS4)

Students who demonstrate understanding can: (9-12)

Evaluate the validity and reliability of claims in published materials of the effects that different frequencies of electromagnetic radiation have when absorbed by matter. (HS-PS4-4)

Communicate technical information about how some technological devices use the principles of wave behavior and wave interactions with matter to transmit and capture information and energy. (HS-PS4-5)

Disciplinary Core Ideas (K-12)

Electromagnetic Radiation (PS4.B)

Atoms of each element emit and absorb characteristic frequencies of light. These characteristics allow identification of the presence of an element, even in microscopic quantities. (9-12)

Information Technologies and Instrumentation (PS4.C)

Multiple technologies based on the understanding of waves and their interactions with matter are part of everyday experiences in the modern world (e.g., medical imaging, communications, scanners) and in scientific research. They are essential tools for producing, transmitting, and capturing signals and for storing and interpreting the information contained in them. (9-12)

The Universe and its Stars (ESS1.A)

The study of stars' light spectra and brightness is used to identify compositional elements of stars, their movements, and their distances from Earth. (9-12)

Crosscutting Concepts (K-12)

Patterns (K-12)

Empirical evidence is needed to identify patterns. (9-12)

Scale, Proportion, and Quantity (3-12)

Algebraic thinking is used to examine scientific data and predict the effect of a change in one variable on another (e.g., linear growth vs. exponential growth). (9-12)

Scientific Knowledge Assumes an Order and Consistency in Natural Systems (1-12)

Science assumes the universe is a vast single system in which basic laws are consistent. (9-12)

Science is a Human Endeavor (3-12)

Technological advances have influenced the progress of science and science has influenced advances in technology. (9-12)

Science is a result of human endeavors, imagination, and creativity. (9-12)

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (K-12)

Analyzing and Interpreting Data (K-12)

Analyzing data in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to introducing more detailed statistical analysis, the comparison of data sets for consistency, and the use of models to generate and analyze data. (9-12)

Analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims or determine an optimal design solution. (9-12)

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions (K-12)

Constructing explanations and designing solutions in 9–12 builds on K–8 experiences and progresses to explanations and designs that are supported by multiple and independent student-generated sources of evidence consistent with scientific ideas, principles, and theories. (9-12)

Construct an explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from a variety of sources (including students' own investigations, models, theories, simulations, peer review) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future. (9-12)

Engaging in Argument from Evidence (2-12)

Engaging in argument from evidence in 9–12 builds on K–8 experiences and progresses to using appropriate and sufficient evidence and scientific reasoning to defend and critique claims and explanations about natural and designed worlds. Arguments may also come from current scientific or historical episodes in science. (9-12)

Evaluate the evidence behind currently accepted explanations to determine the merits of arguments. (9-12)

Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking (5-12)

Mathematical and computational thinking at the 9–12 level builds on K–8 and progresses to using algebraic thinking and analysis, a range of linear and nonlinear functions including trigonometric functions, exponentials and logarithms, and computational tools for statistical analysis to analyze, represent, and model data. Simple computational simulations are created and used based on mathematical models of basic assumptions. (9-12)

Use mathematical representations of phenomena to support claims. (9-12)

Use mathematical representations of phenomena to describe explanations. (9-12)

NGSS Nature of Science Standards (K-12)

Analyzing and Interpreting Data (K-12)

Analyzing data in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to introducing more detailed statistical analysis, the comparison of data sets for consistency, and the use of models to generate and analyze data. (9-12)

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions (K-12)

Constructing explanations and designing solutions in 9–12 builds on K–8 experiences and progresses to explanations and designs that are supported by multiple and independent student-generated sources of evidence consistent with scientific ideas, principles, and theories. (9-12)

Engaging in Argument from Evidence (2-12)

Engaging in argument from evidence in 9–12 builds on K–8 experiences and progresses to using appropriate and sufficient evidence and scientific reasoning to defend and critique claims and explanations about natural and designed worlds. Arguments may also come from current scientific or historical episodes in science. (9-12)

Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking (5-12)

Mathematical and computational thinking at the 9–12 level builds on K–8 and progresses to using algebraic thinking and analysis, a range of linear and nonlinear functions including trigonometric functions, exponentials and logarithms, and computational tools for statistical analysis to analyze, represent, and model data. Simple computational simulations are created and used based on mathematical models of basic assumptions. (9-12)

Exoplanet Atmospheres Science by S. Willoughby and R. Vieyra
Modifiable Word document download 1402kb .docx
Published: October 18, 2019
Rights: AAPT and Temple University

Exoplanet Atmospheres: Teacher Notes by Caroline Hall and David Straw
Background information download 375kb .pdf
Published: October 18, 2019
Rights: C. Hall and D. Straw

Waves and Their Applications in Technologies for Information Transfer (HS-PS4)

Students who demonstrate understanding can: (9-12)

Evaluate the validity and reliability of claims in published materials of the effects that different frequencies of electromagnetic radiation have when absorbed by matter. (HS-PS4-4)

Communicate technical information about how some technological devices use the principles of wave behavior and wave interactions with matter to transmit and capture information and energy. (HS-PS4-5)

Disciplinary Core Ideas (K-12)

Electromagnetic Radiation (PS4.B)

Atoms of each element emit and absorb characteristic frequencies of light. These characteristics allow identification of the presence of an element, even in microscopic quantities. (9-12)

Information Technologies and Instrumentation (PS4.C)

Multiple technologies based on the understanding of waves and their interactions with matter are part of everyday experiences in the modern world (e.g., medical imaging, communications, scanners) and in scientific research. They are essential tools for producing, transmitting, and capturing signals and for storing and interpreting the information contained in them. (9-12)

The Universe and its Stars (ESS1.A)

The study of stars' light spectra and brightness is used to identify compositional elements of stars, their movements, and their distances from Earth. (9-12)

Crosscutting Concepts (K-12)

Patterns (K-12)

Empirical evidence is needed to identify patterns. (9-12)

Scale, Proportion, and Quantity (3-12)

Algebraic thinking is used to examine scientific data and predict the effect of a change in one variable on another (e.g., linear growth vs. exponential growth). (9-12)

Scientific Knowledge Assumes an Order and Consistency in Natural Systems (1-12)

Science assumes the universe is a vast single system in which basic laws are consistent. (9-12)

Science is a Human Endeavor (3-12)

Technological advances have influenced the progress of science and science has influenced advances in technology. (9-12)

Science is a result of human endeavors, imagination, and creativity. (9-12)

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (K-12)

Analyzing and Interpreting Data (K-12)

Analyzing data in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to introducing more detailed statistical analysis, the comparison of data sets for consistency, and the use of models to generate and analyze data. (9-12)

Analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims or determine an optimal design solution. (9-12)

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions (K-12)

Constructing explanations and designing solutions in 9–12 builds on K–8 experiences and progresses to explanations and designs that are supported by multiple and independent student-generated sources of evidence consistent with scientific ideas, principles, and theories. (9-12)

Construct an explanation based on valid and reliable evidence obtained from a variety of sources (including students' own investigations, models, theories, simulations, peer review) and the assumption that theories and laws that describe the natural world operate today as they did in the past and will continue to do so in the future. (9-12)

Engaging in Argument from Evidence (2-12)

Engaging in argument from evidence in 9–12 builds on K–8 experiences and progresses to using appropriate and sufficient evidence and scientific reasoning to defend and critique claims and explanations about natural and designed worlds. Arguments may also come from current scientific or historical episodes in science. (9-12)

Evaluate the evidence behind currently accepted explanations to determine the merits of arguments. (9-12)

Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking (5-12)

Mathematical and computational thinking at the 9–12 level builds on K–8 and progresses to using algebraic thinking and analysis, a range of linear and nonlinear functions including trigonometric functions, exponentials and logarithms, and computational tools for statistical analysis to analyze, represent, and model data. Simple computational simulations are created and used based on mathematical models of basic assumptions. (9-12)

Use mathematical representations of phenomena to support claims. (9-12)

Use mathematical representations of phenomena to describe explanations. (9-12)

NGSS Nature of Science Standards (K-12)

Analyzing and Interpreting Data (K-12)

Analyzing data in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to introducing more detailed statistical analysis, the comparison of data sets for consistency, and the use of models to generate and analyze data. (9-12)

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions (K-12)

Constructing explanations and designing solutions in 9–12 builds on K–8 experiences and progresses to explanations and designs that are supported by multiple and independent student-generated sources of evidence consistent with scientific ideas, principles, and theories. (9-12)

Engaging in Argument from Evidence (2-12)

Engaging in argument from evidence in 9–12 builds on K–8 experiences and progresses to using appropriate and sufficient evidence and scientific reasoning to defend and critique claims and explanations about natural and designed worlds. Arguments may also come from current scientific or historical episodes in science. (9-12)

Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking (5-12)

Mathematical and computational thinking at the 9–12 level builds on K–8 and progresses to using algebraic thinking and analysis, a range of linear and nonlinear functions including trigonometric functions, exponentials and logarithms, and computational tools for statistical analysis to analyze, represent, and model data. Simple computational simulations are created and used based on mathematical models of basic assumptions. (9-12)

S. Willoughby and R. Vieyra, Exoplanet Atmospheres Science: Determining Atmospheric Composition of Exoplanets, 2019, <https://www.compadre.org/Repository/document/ServeFile.cfm?ID=15180&DocID=5109>.

Willoughby, S., & Vieyra, R. (2019). Exoplanet Atmospheres Science: Determining Atmospheric Composition of Exoplanets. Retrieved June 3, 2023, from https://www.compadre.org/Repository/document/ServeFile.cfm?ID=15180&DocID=5109

%0 Report %A Willoughby, Shannon %A Vieyra, Rebecca %D October 17, 2019 %T Exoplanet Atmospheres Science: Determining Atmospheric Composition of Exoplanets %E Hall, Caroline %8 October 17, 2019 %U https://www.compadre.org/Repository/document/ServeFile.cfm?ID=15180&DocID=5109

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