Intro: In the vast reaches of space, there are untold numbers of strange things, many of which we can’t possibly imagine. Yet scientists today are painting a clearer picture of what really exists out there, and modern technology is making it all possible.
Grade Level: 7-12
Student learning objectives: Students will consider the vastness and diversity of the universe. They will study some of the fantastical entities that have been discovered and speculate about other yet-to-be-discovered objects.
Define the following terms with, or for, students:
Familiarize yourself with two of the more amazing celestial objects that have been proven to exist in the universe. Some of these objects are:
The Diamond Planet
CREDIT: Swinburne Astronomy Productions
Among the planets in our solar system, Earth is the only one with a diverse surface. Literally every other planet is home to a singular topography; consider Mars’ red rocks, Mercury’s crispy furnace and Jupiter’s gaseous hurricanes. So it’s not surprising that planets discovered outside our solar system follow this same pattern. Scientists did a double-take, however, when they found PSR J1719-1438 b. While it has a singular topography and is completely uninhabitable, it stands out because of the fact that it is a giant diamond. Yes, scientists have discovered a planet that is not only five times the size of Earth, but also completely made up of diamond.
PSR J1719-1438 b actually used to be a star in a binary system, meaning it was a solar system that was home to two stars. When the larger of the twin stars exploded into a supernova, it left behind a pulsating star (pulsar) and a white dwarf. The dwarf stabilized just far enough away from its former brother to lose matter but keep its carbon core.
Carbon just needs ample amounts of heat and pressure in order to become a diamond. On Earth, that happens underground and creates shiny rocks that are coveted for jewelry and drill bits. But in this particular spot in space, the conditions were just right for the entire interior of that former star to harden, crystallize and turn into a planet-sized gem.
The Biggest Star in the Universe
One of the most difficult things to get across to people with respect to celestial bodies is scale. You can say that something is 12 light years away, and most people can follow the logic that it will take you 12 years traveling at the speed of light to get there, but what does that really mean?
The same goes for the size of celestial bodies. We have a general idea of how big the Earth is, and we can see the sun and the moon, but everything else is just a dot in the night sky. Even the solar system models from elementary school do a poor job of showing the comparative size of things, apart from the fact that Jupiter is bigger than the Earth and the Sun is bigger than Jupiter.
So try to wrap your heads around a star that is 1,500 times bigger than our sun. Consider that if you took all of the matter that exists in our little solar system, 99 percent of it would be the Sun. It is 105 times bigger than the Earth. Now try to think about a fiery ball of nuclear reaction that is as big compared to the Sun as the Sun is to Earth. Got it? Now make it five times bigger, and you’ve got VY Canis Majoris.
This hypergiant is so huge that the light it produces takes eight hours to reach the other side of itself. It is so big that it is literally impossible to depict it to scale against our entire solar system. If one tried to illustrate it on a standard HD television, our solar system would be smaller than a single pixel on the screen.
Introducing discussion to students
Space isn’t just an endless abyss of darkness. A giant “super sun” and a diamond planet are just two of the fantastical entities that exist and that illustrate just how miniscule Earth’s place in the universe really is. We’re going to use these two examples to learn some vocabulary terms and to imagine what other amazing things might exist in space.
Options for student discussion questions