Unlocking universal questions

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: The Origami Satellite / View Guide

Directions for teachers:

Ask students to read the online Science NewsWhen James Webb launches, it will have a bigger to-do list than 1980s researchers suspected,” and answer the following prompts with a partner. A version of the article, “The origami satellite,” appears in the October 9, 2021 & October 23, 2021 issue of Science News.

Want to make it a virtual lesson? Post the online Science News article to your virtual classroom. Discuss the article and questions with your class on your virtual platform.

Making a scientific to-do list

1. List the main questions that scientists hope to answer with help from the James Webb Space Telescope.

How old is the universe and how has it evolved over time? Why is there a mismatch in measurements of the Hubble constant (the rate at which the universe is expanding)? Is the mismatch real or the result of some error in the measurements? Could planets around other stars host life?

2. Explain how the James Webb Space Telescope could be used to help answer one of the scientific questions. What type of data is needed to answer the question, and how will the telescope collect the data?

Student answers will vary. For example, a student might say that the James Webb Space Telescope will be used to verify that certain types of exoplanets (planets around other stars) have atmospheres and look for carbon-bearing molecules in those exoplanet atmospheres using starlight in the infrared range. The telescope will set its sights on several exoplanets, looking at how the exoplanets’ atmospheres filter starlight as the planets pass in front of their parent stars. Atoms and molecules in an exoplanet’s atmosphere absorb certain wavelengths of starlight as the exoplanet transits its parent star, which leave unique fingerprints in the spectrum of light that the telescope picks up. If the James Webb Space Telescope detects carbon-bearing molecules in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, that could be a sign of possible life.

3. Choose one scientific discovery that was made during the development of the James Webb Space Telescope and explain how that discovery shaped the telescope’s mission.

Student answers will vary. For example, a student might say that the discovery of thousands of exoplanets has led to an entirely new field of science that will help the James Webb Space Telescope achieve one of its initial goals: looking for signs of life on Earthlike planets around other stars. In the early days of the telescope’s development, scientists knew of just a handful of exoplanets, and none of them were anything like Earth. Now, James Webb has many exoplanets to choose from that are close enough to see. Some are rocky and have just the right temperatures to support liquid water and perhaps life.

Discussing diagrams

Study one of the following diagrams that appears in the Science News article: “Mixed views,” “A novel design,” “Getting there” and “Transit advantages.” After answering the questions below on your own, explain the diagram to a partner and have your partner explain their chosen diagram to you. Make sure you and your partner choose different diagrams.

1. What diagram did you choose and what does the diagram depict? Be sure to indicate units as appropriate.

Student answers will vary. As an example, a student might say that the “Mixed views” diagram depicts the electromagnetic spectrum and the range of wavelengths that the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope and the Spitzer Space Telescope can observe. Units of wavelength are given in micrometers.

2. How does the diagram help your understanding of the James Webb Space Telescope and its importance?

Student answers will vary. As an example, a student might say that the “Mixed views” highlights the fact that the James Webb Space Telescope will fill a gap in the type of light data collected by current and past space telescopes.

3. What is one science concept that is covered in the diagram that relates to something you’ve studied in science class? How does understanding that science concept affect your understanding of the Science News article?

Student answers will vary. As an example, a student might say that “Mixed views” shows the electromagnetic spectrum and indicates the different types of electromagnetic radiation and their wavelength ranges. In order to understand why the James Web Space Telescope is important to furthering our knowledge of the universe, I need to know the different wavelengths of light, or electromagnetic radiation, that space telescopes collect and what information the light can provide about the universe.