Skip to main content

Highlights from past SMAP programs

Saturday Morning Astrophysics at Purdue provides ample opportunities for students to engage in activities related to popular and newly emerging areas of scientific research and exploration. The following examples illustrate some of our SMAP lessons and activities.

Impact Craters

With the Impact Craters experiment, SMAP students assemble a sling shot apparatus to propel objects of different masses into a bed of sand. A layer of powdered paint simulates a thin crust and provides a visual means of observing ejecta and measuring depth and diameter. Students compare the potential and kinetic energy components of various impactors and, by graphing crater diameter versus energy, are able to model analytical methods used in authentic crater research.

Students learning about impact craters 

Students learning about impact craters

While crater formation is more complicated than a giant mass striking the surface of a planet, the mass, velocity, and angle of trajectory provide opportunities to model and investigate characteristics of crater formation. This session concluded with calculations aimed at determining the energy of the impact believed to have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.


The Search for Exoplanets

How do astrophysicists explore new worlds – planets in orbit around stars when, even with the most powerful telescopes, stars are only pinpoints of light?

The Search for Exoplanets, a computer simulation created by service learning student Guna Kondapaneni, permits students to analyze the miniscule changes in luminosity that occurs when a planet transverses across its host star.

Student using a computer simulation

Students using a computer simulation

Selecting from possible planet/star scenarios, students graph the change in luminosity as the planet passed across the star and determine the orbital radius (distance to the host star), period of orbit, and the mass and radius of the planet. Students form their own conclusion from their data: could the planet be habitable?


Scaling the Cosmos

This activity provided students the rare opportunity of not only creating scale models of the planets in our own solar system, but then taking them outside and spacing them out at the same scale. Scaled to the size of their own "sun," students worked in teams to use PlayDoh® and their creativity to model the eight planets to scaled proportions.

Students learning about planets

Students learning about planets

With their planets, support stands and reference images in hand, students then head outside to discover for themselves the relative and respectively vast distances across our planetary system.


Gravitational Waves

With ground breaking discoveries from LIGO researchers hitting the news, Gravitational Waves is a timely topic for SMAP audiences. Gravitational waves space-time disturbances produces by some of the most violent events in the cosmos. Below, students assembled two dimensional space-time models to learn about the effects of mass and distance between interacting bodies in the warping of space time.

Students learning about gravity waves

Student research teams also tried their hand at probing simulated data sets to try to analyze signal from noise of various types of astrophysical systems. In this video, a student simulates the changes in orbital speed, frequency, and inevitable merger of two black holes.

Stars - What are they?

In Stars – What Are They? Students learn how every atom and molecule emits its own characteristic set of wavelengths or colors of light when it is excited. Using glasses that diffract light from various sources, SMAP students compare features of emission spectra and determine the elements from which the spectra are emitted.

Students learning about stars

To emphasize the concept, students act out, playing roles of protons, neutrons and electrons to experience a visual and kinesthetic approach to atomic excitation and photon emission spectra from the stars.

Students learning about photo emission

Optics, Mirrors, and Telescopes

Student learning about mirrors

What's astronomy without an understanding of telescope designs and how they work? In this SMAP lesson, students are learning about differences between reflecting and refracting telescopes. Concepts include convex and concave lenses and mirrors, power, and focal point. As an added bonus, students assembled their own refracting telescope.


Student learning about telescopes

The Search for Dark Matter

Modeling the dark matter detector currently in use at the underground research laboratory at Gran Sasso, Italy, The Search for Dark Matter uses large tubs of ping pong balls as xenon atoms, tennis balls as neutrons, and bocci balls as wimps (weakly interacting massive particles). Wimps are one theoretical possibility for a dark matter particle.

Students learning about dark matter

Students learning about dark matter

In their own experiment, SMAP students measure and record the sound energy imprint of the collisions of the model neutrons and wimps at various heights to graphs the difference between the two kinds of interactions. They then use their graphs to determine the nature of an unknown interaction.


Last Updated: May 10, 2023 3:14 PM

Department of Physics and Astronomy, 525 Northwestern Avenue, West Lafayette, IN 47907-2036 • Phone: (765) 494-3000 • Fax: (765) 494-0706

Copyright © 2023 Purdue University | An equal access/equal opportunity university | Copyright Complaints

Trouble with this page? Disability-related accessibility issue? Please contact the College of Science.