Grades 9-12 or Adult Sophisticated Learner
Our planet and all of the living things on it are made from matter. Most of that matter was created during the big bang and the rest was mostly created within the cores of ancient stars. During the big bang, all of the hydrogen, most of the helium, and some of the lithium in our universe was created from subatomic particles, like protons and neutrons. Protons and neutrons are sometimes called “nucleons”, since they are in the nuclei of atoms. Since protons and neutrons came together to make the nuclei of these lighter elements during the big bang, we call this process “big bang nucleosynthesis.”
It was this earliest matter, composed of the three lightest elements on the periodic table, that made the very first stars. And these stars were big and bright and they burned out really fast. We call them the “first generation stars”. It was within the cores of these first stars that the process of nuclear fusion first started creating elements heavier than lithium. The hydrogen and the helium inside were squeezed so tightly and with so much energy, that they started forming things like carbon and nitrogen and oxygen. Much like big bang nucleosynthesis, where new elements had been formed, we call this process of forming new elements from nuclear fusion within stars “stellar nucleosynthesis.”
When those first stars “burned up” their elemental “fuel,” they went through a process called “supernova”, where the stars explode and send a lot of their matter out into space. Then, new stars were able to form from the matter that had clumped up in space, including these heavier elements that were made from stellar nucleosynthesis. In this way, each new generation of stars will have more and more of the heavier elements inside of them.
Something really interesting is that the process of stellar nucleosynthesis can make all of the atoms on the periodic table up to iron (element number 26), but it actually takes too much energy to make the elements that are heavier than iron inside of stars. Can you guess where the energy might come from, then, to make all of those other elements we see in nature that are heavier than iron? When a star goes supernova and explodes, there’s actually enough energy to make those heavier elements! We call this process of nucleosynthesis “supernova nucleosynthesis”. Together, all of the various nucleosynthesis reactions explain how all of the matter that makes up our world and living things came to be. That’s why you’ll often hear people exclaim that we are made of star stuff!
Disciplinary Core Ideas
ESS1.A: The Universe and its stars:
- The star called the Sun is changing and will burn out over a lifespan of approximately 10 billion years. (HS-ESS1-1) *The study of stars’ light spectra and brightness is used to identify compositional elements of stars, their movements, and their distances from Earth. (HS-ESS1-2, HS-ESS1-3)
- The big-bang theory is supported by observations of distant galaxies receding from our own, of the measured composition of stars and non-stellar gases, and of the maps of spectra of the primordial radiation (cosmic microwave background) that still fills the universe. (HS-ESS1-2)
- Other than the hydrogen and helium formed at the time of the big bang, nuclear fusion within stars produces all atomic nuclei lighter than and including iron, and the process releases electromagnetic energy. Heavier elements are produced when certain massive stars achieve a supernova stage and explode. (HS-ESS1-2, HS-ESS1-3)
ESS1.B: Earth and the Solar System: Kepler’s laws describe common features of the motions of orbiting objects, including their elliptical paths around the Sun. Orbits may change due to the gravitational effects from, or collisions with, other objects in the solar system. (HS-ESS1-4)
PS1.C: Nuclear Processes: Nuclear processes, including fusion, fission, and radioactive decays of unstable nuclei, involve release or absorption of energy. The total number of neutrons plus protons does not change in any nuclear process. (HS-PS1-8)
PS3.D: Energy in Chemical Processes and Everyday Life: Nuclear Fusion processes in the center of the Sun release the energy that ultimately reaches Earth as radiation.
The significance of a phenomenon is dependent on the scale, proportion, and quantity at which it occurs. (HS-ESS1-1)
Big Ideas: The solar system formed from a large cloud of gas and dust drawn together by gravitational forces. Nearly all of the observable matter in the universe is made up of hydrogen and helium formed during the big bang. Stars go through a sequence of developmental stages — they are formed; evolve in size, mass, and brightness; and eventually burn out. Material from earlier stars that exploded as supernovas is recycled to form younger stars and their planetary systems. Most of the other elements have been born from the life cycle, or evolution, of stars where lighter elements such as hydrogen and helium combine into heavier elements like oxygen and carbon through fusion. The heaviest elements are formed when stars go supernova, creating enough energy to fuse molecules together into carbon, oxygen, and even gold. The solar system and much of the matter in it, has been formed inside of stars that have gone through their life cycle.
Boundaries: By the end of 12th grade, Newton’s law of universal gravitation and Coulomb’s law provide the mathematical models to describe and predict the effects of gravitational and electrostatic forces between distant objects. Students learn to distinguish between different types of energy (ie chemical, mechanical, electrical). Emphasis is on the way nucleosynthesis, and therefore the different elements created, varies as a function of the mass of a star and the stage of its lifetime. Does not include details of the atomic and subatomic processes involved with the Sun’s nuclear fusion. Additionally, students at this level can understand atoms and how their position on the periodic table predicts the properties of elements. (HS-ESS1-1)
6-9 Rising Stargirls Teaching and Activity Handbook. Constellations (page 13). Introduces students to what constellations are, to their subjective nature, and to the range of cultures that have named constellations. In Make Your Own Constellation (page 15) students are given an introduction to some constellations in the night sky and create their own constellations. Rising Stargirls activities are a part of a 10-day workshop dedicated to encouraging girls of all backgrounds to learn, explore, and discover the universe through interactive astronomy using theater, writing, and visual art. This provides an avenue for individual self-expression and personal exploration that is interwoven with scientific engagement and discovery. together, both science and the arts can create enlightened future scientists and imaginative thinkers. Rising Stargirls. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/54d01d6be4b07f8719d7f29e/t/5748c58ec2ea517f705c7cc6/1464386959806/Rising_Stargirls_Teaching_Handbook.compressed.pdf
6-12 Formation of Galaxies. This engaging three-day lesson uses the 5E approach to have students explore gravity and the formation of galaxies through a variety of methods, including a gravity simulator. This lesson develops students’ understanding of the early universe and how galaxy formation is driven by initial conditions, gravity, and time. This sample lesson is part of the Voyages through Time Curriculum: Cosmic Evolution. SETI. http://www.voyagesthroughtime.org/cosmic/sample/lesson5/z_act1.htm
6-12 Astrobiology Math. This collection of math problems provides an authentic glimpse of modern astrobiology science and engineering issues, often involving actual research data. Students explore concepts in astrobiology through calculations. Relevant topics that support the origin of the universe include Counting Galaxies with the Hubble Space Telescope (page 103) and Our Neighborhood in the Milky Way (page 113). NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/637832main_Astrobiology_Math.pdf
6-12 Dawn: Find a Meteorite. This online activity (45-90 minutes) introduces the importance of meteorites to the understanding of the origin of the Solar System. Learners use a key to determine if samples are meteorites. Finding meteorites can be difficult because most meteorites look like Earth rocks to the casual or untrained eye. These lessons require multiple computers for individuals, pairs, or small groups. JPL/NASA. https://dawn.jpl.nasa.gov/Meteorite/
7-12 Cosmic Times. In this blast from the past, students go through an online newspaper that chronicles the events surrounding the Big Bang. The articles and pictures provide a glimpse of the evidence and possible hypotheses involved in the Big Bang Theory in order to evaluate possible solutions. NASAhttp://cosmictimes.gsfc.nasa.gov/
7-12 Cosmic Questions. This collection of eight 30-45 minute lessons was developed to support the information in the informal education exhibit Cosmic Questions. The lessons include subjects such as the Big Bang Theory and its evidence. Each lesson is stand-alone. The activity “Comparing Optical and X-Ray images” (page 31) provides students with the opportunity to compare shreds of an exploded star and a star ejecting matter as it expands. In the activity “Modeling the Expanding Universe,” students visualize the universe expanding in all directions during the Big Bang (page 39). Harvard-Smithsonian/NSF/NASA. https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/seuforum/exhibit/resources/CQEdGuide.pdf#page=18
8-10 SpaceMath Problem 416: Kepler probes the interior of red giant stars. Students use the properties of circular arcs to explore sound waves inside stars. [Topics: geometry of circles and arcs; distance=speed x time] https://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/stars/7Page80.pdf
8-10 SpaceMath Problem 121: Ice on Mercury? Since the 1990’s, radio astronomers have mapped Mercury. An outstanding curiosity is that in the polar regions, some craters appear to have ‘anomalous reflectivity’ in the shadowed areas of these craters. One interpretation is that this is caused by subsurface ice. The MESSENGER spacecraft hopes to explore this issue in the next few years. In this activity, students measure the surface areas of these potential ice deposits and calculate the volume of water that they imply. [Topics: area of a circle; volume, density, unit conversion] https://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/Geometry/4Page23.pdf
8-10 SpaceMath Problem 124: The Moon’s Atmosphere! Students learn about the moon’s very thin atmosphere by calculating its total mass in kilograms using the volume of a spherical shell and the measured density. [Topics: volume of sphere, shell; density-mass-volume; unit conversions] https://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/moon/4Page26.pdf
9-11 SpaceMath Problem 181: Extracting Oxygen from Moon Rocks. Students use a chemical equation to estimate how much oxygen can be liberated from a sample of lunar soil. [Topics: ratios; scientific notation; unit conversions] https://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/moon/5Page28.pdf
9-12 SpaceMath Problem 483: The Radioactive Dating of a Star in the Milky Way! Students explore Cayrel’s Star, whose age has been dated to 12 billion years using a radioisotope dating technique involving the decay of uranium-238. [Topics: half-life; exponential functions; scientific notation] https://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/stars/9Page5.pdf
9-12 SpaceMath Problem 482: Exploring Density, Mass and Volume Across the Universe. Density is an important feature of matter. Students calculate the density of various astronomical objects and convert them into hydrogen atoms per cubic meter in order to compare how astronomical objects differ enormously in their densities. [Topics: density=mass/volume; scientific notation; unit conversion; metric math] https://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/stars/9Page4.pdf
9-12 Kinesthetic Big Bang. In this one-hour activity students model the time after the Big Bang when the first nuclei of hydrogen and helium were created. The students move and display cards that show the elements that are formed. The creation of these initial elements is the foundation for later star and planet evolution. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/190387main_Cosmic_Elements.pdf#page=22
9-12 Cosmology and Big Bang Primer. This website presents foundational information and concepts about Cosmology and our current understanding of the Universe. This is more useful for educators than most students. The information includes the Big Bang theory and evidence for it. NASA. http://wmap.gsfc.nasa.gov/universe/
9-12 Dying Stars and the Birth of Elements. In this student software-based interactive lesson, students use a simulator of an orbiting X-ray observatory to observe a supernova remnant, the expanding gas from an exploded star. They take X-ray spectral data, analyze them, and answer questions based on that data. Supernovas create elements that make up planets and life, so this lesson supports the study of the origins of the universe. XMM-Newton Education and Outreach Sonoma State University. http://xmm.sonoma.edu/edu/clea/XRaySNR_Manual.pdf