Chubbuck library, museum partner on NASA exoplanet exhibit

May 6, 2019

About 40 light years away, seven planets similar in size to Earth orbit the ultra-cool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1.

Three of those planets lie within the so-called Goldilocks zone: reminiscent of the story character’s porridge, conditions in the zone are “just right” for scientists seeking life in other solar systems.

The promising TRAPPIST-1 system is prominently featured in an interactive museum exhibit, a portion of which will open Friday at the Idaho Museum of Natural History, located on the Idaho State University campus. The other half of the exhibit, called “Discover Exoplanets,” is already on display at Chubbuck’s Portneuf District Library, 5210 Stuart Ave. The exhibit, which deals with planets outside of our solar system, will remain open at both locations through July 25.

The exhibit has been provided at no cost to the museum and library by the Space Science Institute’s National Center for Interactive Learning, in partnership with NASA’s Universe of Learning. Children’s librarian Amanda Bowden wrote the exhibit grant, which requires museums and libraries to partner together. Bowden said the grant gives preference to museums and libraries that serve rural and low-income populations.

Bowden said Southeast Idaho is among eight communities in the nation to land the exhibit, and its arrival times perfectly with the library’s space-themed summer reading program.

The exhibit includes touch-screen kiosks, covering topics such as inaccuracies of Hollywood portrayals of space, differentiating scientific facts from fiction and how satellites can see stars and galaxies with infrared light. Another interactive feature allows children to play the roles of planets orbiting around a globe of light, simulating the sun, to show them how a passing planet can briefly block light from a star and make it appear dimmer from afar.

Virginia Jones, the museum’s education specialist, explained scientists were able to make early exoplanet discoveries by tracking fluctuations in light curves from specific stars.

“The first exoplanets they discovered were all really big exoplanets with short orbits to their stars — all Jupiter-plus sized,” Jones said. “Some were going around a star in a couple of weeks, and you could definitely notice that change.”

Jones, a former high school science teacher, tasked her past classes with studying graphic depictions of light curves from stars to help discover new exoplanets as “citizen scientists,” through a program called Zooniverse. The online data they analyzed was supplied by the Kepler space telescope.

Planets within the Goldilocks zone — including K2-155d, which is 1.64 times the size of Earth and was discovered in March 2018 — are likely rocky and are the appropriate distance from TRAPPIST-1 to have liquid water.

The museum will offer free admission for its component of the display from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday. The museum’s portion of the exhibit includes a green screen, where visitors can dress up in space-inspired costumes and do their own television broadcasts from one of the system’s potentially habitable planets. Guests may also create their own solar systems and build constellations.

Both Jones and Bowden attended training in Pueblo, Colorado, last summer to learn how to set up and take down the display, as well as background on the content.

“A NASA exhibit is always quality and always accurate,” Jones said.