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category: History, date: 2014-04-29, by Avon SD
Kelly Brandt Exoplanets
This is an article by Lance Nixon - Capital JournalKelly Brandt teacher and Avon SD alumni

In a manner of speaking, Kelly Brandt's students have just carried out a class project evaluating real estate - in physics class.

It was a physics project because the real estate they inspected was a planet orbiting a star called WASP 43 - and probably not a good neighborhood for humans or other life as we know it, as it turned out.

"We determined life could not exist on this exoplanet because it was too close to its sun," Brandt said. "It only had an orbit radius of about 9 to 10 million miles."

Students in Brandt's three physics classes made T.F. Riggs one of roughly 40 schools from around the nation to participate in a project with Harvard University that allowed students to study exoplanets. It was the only school in South Dakota to participate in the project, carried out by Harvard’s Laboratory for the Study of Exoplanets. The project is tailored for high school physics and astronomy students.

"I told the kids, 'For two weeks, you're Harvard students,'" Brandt said. "I just thought it would be good to be able to say on their transcripts that they participated in a Harvard research project."

An exoplanet is a planet outside the Solar System

An exoplanet, sometimes called an extrasolar planet, is a planet outside the Solar System. As of April 23, 1,783 such planets had been discovered in 1,105 planetary systems. Astronomers have been finding them since 1992, mostly within the Milky Way galaxy that is also home to Earth and its sun.

Brandt said that by participating in the nationwide Harvard project, his students had the chance to learn firsthand what some physicists and astronomers do for a living.

"They used a remote telescope down in Arizona, outside of Tucson," Brandt said. "We were able to program in our dates and times and what star we wanted to observe."

Then, by viewing what the telescope saw via their own computers from the classroom in Pierre, Brandt's students were able to view the change in brightness of the star they wanted to observe - an indication that an exoplanet was passing in front of WASP 43.

"We measured the dip in brightness. From the dip in brightness, we were able to calculate the approximate size of the planet in relation to its sun," Brandt said. "We could also measure the approximate distance to its sun. We could identify whether it was a tilted orbit or an edge-on orbit."

The class looked at two comparison stars to graph the brightness of their star.

Brandt said the project is an amazing use of technology and exposes Riggs students - who were already the third-ranked school in South Dakota in the science portion of their 2013 ACT exams - to cutting-edge tools in physics. But the project also fits with the new push in Common Core standards, which doesn't just want students to come up with answers but to understand why they're getting those answers.

The project provided a little more in-depth understanding of how scientists study the heavens, Brandt said. That's knowledge that could be especially interesting to T.F. Riggs students who are already eying disciplines such as engineering and physics for careers,

"There is a significant number who will head in that direction," Brandt said. "We try to give them what they need. From there, what they do with it is up to them."

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