Exoplanet Simulation with Python?

During my time at Purdue University, I worked with two members of the Physics department to develop a weekend activity for K-12 students. This activity involved the writing of a Python program to help discover exoplanets. The simulation had originated as a use of VPython that one of my undergraduate outreach students and I had developed for another after-school integrated physics and computer science event that we were running. The simulation allowed you to see the elliptical orbits of planets and the relative motion between planets. We allowed students to modify the size of all of the planets and the sun in order for them to see where they were positioned, and then they could move around in the virtual space to see each of the planetary orbits. It was fun to create, but I didn’t think much more about it after we ran the activity with high school students over the course of 6 months back in 2016.

My colleague in Physics Outreach, Dr. David Sederberg, and a graduate student that he was working with, Avery Archer, reached out to me to see if we could extend that activity for use with the concept of exoplanet discovery. The idea, in layman’s terms, is that when a telescope is focused on a star in another galaxy, the subtle change in luminosity that occurs when the exoplanet moves in front of the star then can tell the viewer whether or not that planet is suitable for life. The undergraduate who originally helped me develop the solar system simulation, Guna Kondapaneni, then put his efforts into modifying that project so that it could be used as part of the exoplanet activity that Dr. Sederberg was planning.

This again I had somewhat forgotten about, until I heard the good news that our paper about the project had been accepted in the upcoming issue of The Physics Teacher journal. This kind of work is really exciting, as it shows another avenue for helping students see the utility of computer science knowledge outside of CS classrooms.

If you want to read more about the work, check it out here at https://aapt.scitation.org/doi/full/10.1119/1.5145536