Exoplanet Lab Guide for Educators 

Download PDF of full NOVA Exoplanet Lab Educator Guide 

Brief Overview:

In the NOVA Exoplanet Lab, players take on the role of NOVAnauts, scientists for the NOVA Space Center’s Galactic Resettlement team. They’ve received distress calls from aliens in desperate need of new homes, and to help, will have to master the same techniques scientists use to find and characterize exoplanets – world’s orbiting faraway stars.  

There are four steps a NOVAnaut must complete to help their alien friends: 

STEP 1: After learning about the different methods used to find exoplanets, players use the transit method to identify stars that seem to have planets orbiting them. This method allows them to calculate each planet’s volume, based on how much of the star’s light it blocks from reaching our telescopes when crossing in front.

STEP 2: Next, players use the radial velocity method to measure how much the planets are tugging gravitationally on their stars, causing them to wobble. This gives an estimation of their mass, which, combined with the volume derived from the transit method, allows the player to calculate each planet’s density. 

STEP 3: The third step is to identify the atmospheric composition of each planet they’ve discovered by analyzing the unique absorption spectrum of the star’s light after passing through it. Knowing what molecules are present can tell us how many heat-absorbing greenhouse gases are present – another clue to the planet’s temperature – and whether there are any biosignature gases which might indicate whether life is already there.

STEP 4: The final step is to put all this information together by placing habitability tags, or Habi-tags, on each planet that summarize its likely conditions. Now they’re ready to make a decision about where to send their alien, who will report back on how they fare once they arrive at their new home.

Throughout the mission, all relevant data will be logged in the player’s Star Dex. If they’re looking to get an up-close view of a particular exoplanet, players can open the Star-View to toggle between all of the newly discovered exoplanets orbiting the selected star. Players can view the information in their Star Dex or open Star View at any point during the game. 

Visit the NOVA Labs Collection on PBS LearningMedia to view the full lesson plan that accompanies the lab. The NOVA Exoplanet Lab is appropriate for both middle and high school classrooms, and was designed with Next Generation Science Standards for Earth and space sciences in mind. 

The Exoplanet Lab is part of the NSF-funded WHIMC project (What-If Hypothetical Implementations in Minecraft), based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. WHIMC uses Minecraft as a creative sandbox where kids can explore alternative versions of Earth allowing researchers to study how “What If?” hypothetical scenarios might trigger engagement and learning in STEM.