The Discovery of Kepler-452b

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Earth on the left. A very hopeful Earth-like rendition of Kepler-452b on the right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T.Pyle

As told by Dr. Jorge Perez-GallegoResident Astronomer and Exhibition Developer at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science:

It has been 20 years since the first exoplanet – a planet that orbits a star other than the Sun – was discovered in 1995. Currently, we are aware of the existence of 1,879 exoplanets. As many as 1,033 of those have been discovered by the Kepler Mission. Launched in 2009, Kepler is a space observatory designed by NASA to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way to discover exoplanets. It does so by monitoring the brightness of stars with a photometer, an instrument that measures light intensity. Periodic tiny changes in brightness may be caused by an exoplanet that crosses in front of its host star. This detection method – transit method – allows us also to estimate the size of the exoplanet, and the period and size of its orbits.

On July 23, NASA announced the discovery of exoplanet Kepler-452b: “Kepler” for being discovered by the Kepler Mission, “452” for being the 452nd planetary system confirmed during the course of the mission, and “b” because it is the first planet discovered in the system. Kepler-452b has been labeled as the most Earth-like planet to date. Now, what does that mean? And, how accurate is that?

This is what we know about Kepler-452b. Its radius is 60% larger than the Earth’s radius and its orbit is slightly larger than the Earth’s orbit and still in the habitable zone – the region around a star where planets can support liquid water. It is orbiting a G2 star like our Sun and it does so in 385 Earth days. This star is 6 billion years old, 1.5 billion years older than our Sun, and because of this, it is also larger and brighter. It could by now, for example, have evaporated Kepler-452b oceans, if they were ever there. So, is this an Earth-like planet? In order to answer this better we would need to know its mass, but we currently do not.

This is what we do not know but we can try to guess. Our understanding of planetary science suggests that there is a slightly better than even odds of it having a rocky surface and being 5 times heavier than Earth, and thus all the hopeful artist renditions including lakes, mountains and volcanoes. At this point, then, we cannot conclude Kepler-452b is an older cousin of the Earth. It could also very well be a gaseous older cousin of Neptune.

The ultimate goal is to find a planet that can host some kind of complex life. Before Kepler-452b, our best candidate was Kepler-186f. This planet is only 10% larger than Earth, but orbits around a much fainter yet more stable M star. Nevertheless, if finding complex life is our ultimate goal, these stars may be our best candidates since they account for as much as about 75% of the galaxy’s stars.

Kepler-186f is about 500 light years away. Kepler-452b is about 1,400 light years away. New Horizons just reached Pluto, about five light hours away, after almost a ten year journey. It is obvious we are not going to be visiting any of these planets anytime soon. But that does not mean we never will.

One of the permanent exhibitions at the new Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science (opening in downtown Miami’s Museum Park in summer 2016) is being developed around the idea that, with time and working together, humans can overcome any challenge. Named “Feathers to the Stars,” the exhibition will take you on an inspiring journey from the evolution of animal flight, through the development of human flight, to the future of space exploration. The challenge of interstellar travel may look big, but so did going to the Moon thousands of years ago.

Going back to the discovery of Kepler-452b, whether it turns to be more or less Earth-like, is indeed great news. We are getting closer to finding another “Earth” elsewhere in our galaxy. At this point, it is just a matter of time. Kepler data, for example, suggests that there may be 17 billion Earth-sized planets in the disk of the Milky Way alone. Of course, it will take a long time to map it, but we are working on it. In the future, missions like Tess in 2017, will provide more detail on the size, mass, and atmospheres of exoplanets, and missions like the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018, will also provide astonishing detail on the color, seasons, weather and even the vegetation of some exoplanets. Onwards!

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Bridging Job Skills and the Financial Education Gap

As told by Gene Schaefer, Miami market president, Bank of America:

While the jobless rate may be improving in Miami-Dade County, according to The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, unemployment is still a very real problem as low- and-middle-income individuals continue to be outperformed by better skilled workers. If people can’t put enough food on the table, find a job that supports their family or an affordable place to live, they can’t begin to think about their overall financial security and future.

As a financial institution, our philanthropic investments support our company’s purpose to improve the financial lives of the customers, clients and communities.

Our partnerships with nonprofits in Miami-Dade County address both immediate needs related to jobs, housing and hunger, and connect individuals to longer-term solutions that will help them improve their financial lives, from financial education and coaching to access to benefits.

This month the Bank of America Charitable Foundation announced the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science as a recipient of the 2015 Workforce and Development grant. Frost Science will use the funds to support initiatives in financial education and job skills training, both of which help our community thrive.

The museum’s grant will support youth internships for its Summer Camp program for Upward Bound students who have recently graduated from high school or currently enrolled in college. For over twenty years, Frost Science has offered intensive educational support to underserved high school teens through its Upward Bound program which offers four years of academic enrichment, diversified educational opportunities, research internships, and tutoring to approximately 100 students annually.

By investing in workforce development and education grants throughout South Florida, we help individuals and families build better money habits and find pathways out of poverty. This year alone in Miami-Dade County, the grants will impact 34,505 individuals.

Augmenting our philanthropic efforts are our most valuable resource – or employees – who give their time and talent through volunteerism, helping their neighbors build better money habits and improving the quality of life in the community.

Sincerely,

Gene Schaefer, Miami market president

Bank of America

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Planting Native Trees with Museum Volunteers for the Environment (MUVE)

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On July 11, volunteers from Apple, Inc., Yelp Miami, Hands On Miami, Key Biscayne Citizen Scientist Project and the Miami community planted nearly 500 native hammock trees at Virginia Key North Point. This site is being restored through a partnership with Frost Science’s Museum Volunteers for the Environment (MUVE). To sign up for the next MUVE volunteer event, please click here.

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Frost Science at the Smithsonian Affiliates Conference

As a Smithsonian Affiliate Museum, the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science was invited to participate in the Smithsonian Affiliates Conference that takes place every June. The annual conference exposes Smithsonian affiliated museums from across the country to new programs, exhibits, collections, and excellent collaboration opportunities. This year, Michelle Beumer, Public Programs Manager at Frost Science, was asked to present about a distance learning program that the museum offers select schools in Miami-Dade County.

Frost Science has partnered with the National Museum of Natural History  to bring real Smithsonian scientists to schools across Miami-Dade County through a live webcast series called Smithsonian Science How (SSH.) Frost Science travels to Title 1 schools in Miami-Dade County to bring SSH coupled with hands-on activities, Frost Science expertise and local scientists from Miami-based universities. Michelle has visited six schools over the last year, engaging with 400 students through SSH.

On Tuesday, June 16, Michelle joined a panel of five other educators from museums across the country to present a session at the conference, Distance Learning: Technology as a Tool for Authentic Museum Experiences. The session was highly attended and the audience was enthusiastic about joining the distance learning initiative.

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Miami Beach Clean Up with 1 Hotel South Beach

On Tuesday, May 26, the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science and its Museum Volunteers for the Environment (MUVE) teamed up with 1 Hotel South Beach for a successful Miami Beach clean up event. The hotel’s staff, its guests, neighbors and event partners collected over a thousand pieces of litter.

The museum and MUVE staff helped teach volunteers about an awareness app, the Marine Debris Tracker, which allows individuals to track how much trash circulates through the various coastlines of Miami and the ocean at large. Based off of the Marine Debris Tracker, 1 Hotel South Beach and its volunteers picked up 299 cigarettes, 72 paper food wrappers and 453 various plastic items, totaling a whopping 1,030 pieces of trash.

All volunteers rendezvoused at 1 Hotel South Beach’s Private Beach Tent, which housed supplies for guests and/or staff to partake in the cleanup, kindly provided by the museum and MUVE. Since gloves create more waste, the hotel encouraged volunteers to bring their own.

Frost Science's Marketing Manager Joseph Quininoes & Marketing and Events Coordinator Paola Villanueva

Frost Science’s Marketing Manager Joseph Quininoes and Marketing & Events Coordinator Paola Villanueva

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Science Stars: Year in Review

For the third year running, the Science Stars program at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science has provided an opportunity to elementary students, and their families, to get excited about science. The Science Stars program is an initiative undertaken by Frost Science to give back to the community.

During the February 2012 groundbreaking for the new Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, set to open in 2016, the museum announced the Science Stars program.

The program provides a visit by Frost Science to underserved elementary schools in the community. Scientists engage with the students and offer engaging and educational hands-on activities in a range of scientific topics. The schools are then invited to visit the museum at a later date for a free evening with their families, which includes exciting programming, an exclusive Planetarium show, museum exploration time, and a free meal. In addition, each family is offered a free family membership to return to the museum as often as they desire.

The Science Stars program collaborates with Miami-Dade County Public Schools to identify eight Title 1 elementary schools throughout the county that become the museum’s special partners for the year. This year the eight schools were:

  • Avocado Elementary School
  • Eneida M. Hartner Elementary School
  • Nathan B. Young Elementary School
  • Olympia Heights Elementary School
  • Rainbow Park Elementary School
  • Toussaint Louverture Elementary School
  • Tropical Elementary School
  • West Homestead K-8 Center

Throughout the year, wonderful guest scientists visited the schools and presented on a variety of topics, including weather, geology, sounds of the universe, coastal ecology, what it’s like living under the sea, and cellular biology. Students were always incredibly engaged and had a lot of questions for the scientists. Many students left saying that they wanted to become a scientist after their meet and greet, which is the greatest compliment anyone can receive. During the student visits to the museum, many of whom had never been before, they were able to get their hands wet and touch sea stars, pick up a 60-lb anaconda (don’t worry, it’s not real one!), and get moving on the energy dance floor. They also enjoyed live science shows on electricity, liquid nitrogen and air, in addition to a laser show in the Planetarium.

Additionally, thanks to generous support for the program from The Green Family Foundation, Avocado Elementary was selected to come back to the Museum for a free chemistry-themed field trip for 90 of their students.

CBS 4 Meteorologist John Gerard at Olympia Heights Elementary School. Look at all those questions!

CBS 4 Meteorologist John Gerard at Olympia Heights Elementary School. Look at all those questions!

We have had another successful year of one of our favorite programs. We look forward to what the 2015-2016 school year will bring. Happy summer to all our Science Stars!

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Curious Vault Collaborations 002: Flight

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For centuries, the disciplines of science and art have occasionally intersected in the larger search for a life of meaning and the meaning of life. The team here at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science has decided to gracefully continue that discussion and we are excited and proud to announce the second installment of the Curious Vault Collaborations.

The project, inspired by the collection, puts a local artist and scientist together with the intention of creating a tabletop display using at least one item from the Museum’s permanent collection. These main elements, a table, a collection object, an artist, and a scientist, are the framework. They are a unifying set of rules that hope to guide the endeavor for future projects.

For this project, the Museum wanted to focus on flight, so the team here pinpointed Gecheng Zha, Professor and Director of the Computational Fluid Dynamics and Aerodynamics Lab in the Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering. Which admittedly is a complicated mouthful.

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Professor Gecheng Zha

The main crux of what Professor Zha works on is Computation Fluid Dynamics, which in layman’s terms is the careful study of any vehicle, or structures that has air blowing on it or moving around it.  They study things like rockets, airplanes, buildings, or objects for any industry to test air resistance and the ability to withstand wind pressure.

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Computational Fluid Dynamics and Aerodynamics Lab computer imagery

“The wind is always chaotic and turbulent,” Zha explains, “we want to understand how we can make use of wind to serve humankind.” There are tons of practical applications, but the dream, Zha simply puts is that they, “want to study the wind so that we can fly faster than birds in a big way.”

And there are different kinds and qualities of flight as well. For example how quiet owls are in the air, or the tightening muscles of bats’ wings, which enables them to make micro-precision adjustments in mid flight.

In explaining these types of intricacies his artistic counterpart, Robert Chambers, the piece was born. Chambers has a long and quite storied relationship to science, as both his father and his grandfather were scientists. His grandfather invented the Chambers Micro-manipulator, a device he first used in 1912 for surgery at the cellular level. According to Chambers, his work consists of, “dynamic installations which incorporate science, mythology and often reference various aspects of art history.” The museum enlisted Chambers for the exact reason that he is sensitive to the scientific process.

Robert Chambers Propeller

Robert Chambers

For the piece itself, titled In Flight, Chambers has chosen not a singular object like the first Collaboration project, but a group of objects that were inspired by conversations with Dr. Zha about the different qualities of flight.

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Insight Flight, 2015 Robert Chambers & Professor Gecheng Zha

The artwork is structured in three distinct sections meant to represent the past (on the bottom), present (middle), and future (top) of flight. The bottom, or the past, is a glass case under the tabletop, consisting of a model of feathered dinosaur (Caudipteryx), a platypus, an ostrich egg, and a cast of a Gansus fossil, which is an extinct aquatic duck. In the middle display, representing the present is an anhinga bird, an ivory-billed woodpecker (possibly extinct), a small owl, a flying squirrel, a giant moth, a large bird feather, a boomerang, and two images from the Al Green Archive, a mid century aviation innovator. The top is a massive ovular object referencing the egg’s form on the bottom and based on Kepler’s Equation, which deals with the numerous geometric qualities of planetary motion. Many orbits happen in elliptical shapes and Chambers’ wanted to reflect that in his creation.

On the side of the table is a video of Zha’s work in Computational Fluid Dynamics at University of Miami, a field that for practical purposes takes what happens in the real world and simulates it in a computer. The video additionally shows a compilation of flight related videos. The images are quite powerful standing on their own and it is easy to stare deep in to the digital simulations of fluid flowing over and under an airplanes wings and turbines juxtaposed with slow motion videos of a bats, birds and helicopters in flight.

It is complex and multifaceted work. But perhaps the most poignant comment on the intersectionality of art and science came from Chambers who interestingly said the highlight of making the piece “was observing the wind tunnel experiments. His wind tunnel laboratory is a ready made sculpture installation that should be installed at MOMA.”

The variety of stimulus in In Flight is a fascinating juxtaposition that highlights Chambers’ deft skill as an artist. The two cases perhaps mirror the museum vitrine and engage the viewer in the same way enticing them to walk over and investigate. While the massive ovular Kepler fiberglass piece can be impressively spotted from across any room, despite being attached to a tabletop, while appearing to float in space.

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Kepler fiberglass Aeroegg in situ at Chamber’s studio

All of this was inspired by a visit to the Curious Vault. The Al Green Archive, as well as the large collection of bird specimens that the museum has acquired over the years particularly impressed Professor Zha. Perhaps it’s not that unusual for a scientist studying the intricacies of flight would find inspiration here, but perhaps more interesting is the artist Chambers reaction who goes on to laughingly exclaim, “that if one is not surprised by something in the Curious Vault then that person is dead.”

The Curious Vault Collaborations is a periodic exhibition and online cabinet of curiosities featuring objects from the collection of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, which are integrated into a project by a Local Artist and Scientist presented by writer Nathaniel Sandler and Kevin Arrow, Art & Collections Manager. For more information, email karrow@miamisci.org.

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The Search for Another Earth: Renowned Astrophysicist Dr. Sara Seager Meets Middle School Students in a Virtual World

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A peek into the Museum’s vMAX (Virtual Missions and Exoplanets) virtual world

In recent years, scientists have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars. But are there any other Earth-like planets out there? Astrophysicist and planetary scientist Dr. Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the leaders in the field attempting to answer that question. Named by Time Magazine as one of the 25 Most Influential in Space in 2012, Dr. Seager recently became an avatar to inspire the next generation of scientists who may help her answer that big question.

The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science currently has a multi-year million dollar grant from NASA to run the vMAX (Virtual Missions and Exoplanets) program, in which middle school students nationwide participate in weeklong camps to investigate exoplanets. vMAX offers a combination of hands-on activities and 3D virtual simulations, and gives students the chance to become avatars, navigate a virtual space environment, interact with students at other museums and science centers, and investigate real exoplanet data.

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vMAX students model the “transit method” by observing the shadow of the orange ball (the model exoplanet) as it “transits” the whiteboard

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Students investigate the spectra of gases like oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen – these special “diffraction glasses” split the light from the glowing gases into distinct patterns that allow scientists (and students) to identify the gases

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Students explore the virtual world of exoplanets, and interact with each other in Miami and Huntsville, via their avatars

Dr. Seager’s exciting work led to the first landmark detection of an exoplanet’s atmosphere. Many exoplanets are discovered via the “transit method,” which involves detecting a slight periodic dimming of a distant star due to an orbiting exoplanet passing between the star and Earth. To find out whether that exoplanet is like Earth, or if it has an atmosphere that could perhaps support life, Dr. Seager uses spectroscopy. This involves studying the light that reaches us from a star. By splitting starlight into its component rainbow of colors (or “spectrum”), she can observe distinct patterns in the colors. Scientists know that all elements, like oxygen or carbon gas, emit unique patterns in their spectra. By comparing those known patterns to the patterns observed in the starlight, it is possible to identify the chemical makeup of a star. And as the exoplanet orbits and interferes with the starlight, the change in the spectrum as we see it from Earth can even give us an idea of the makeup of the exoplanet itself!

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Dr. Seager and students gather in space to talk about exoplanets

Recently Dr. Seager conducted a different kind of mission, and met vMAX students via our virtual world. While her avatar and student avatars floated in space, she shared her inspirational work and career – including her role on TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), an upcoming NASA exoplanet mission expected to launch in 2017.

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Student avatars float in space and gather around to hear from Dr. Seager, who is floating in front of an image of the spectrum of the Sun

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Dr. Seager shares some data from the Hubble Space Telescope

Student avatars then took their turn to led the expert, giving Dr. Seager a tour of our virtual vMAX world, and the data on real exoplanetary systems that they have been investigating. Students then got to meet Dr. Seager face-to-face via Skype, and got a sneak peek into her very cool office, where she showed them several exciting models of spacecraft components.

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The students lead Dr. Seager through their virtual lab room, and show her the data they have been investigating of real explanatory systems

This group of middle school students – in Miami at the Patricia and Philip Frost Museum of Science, and another group of students in Huntsville, Alabama at the US Space & Rocket Center – had the unique opportunity to go into space and ask a renowned expert one of the biggest questions humankind has ever asked – is there another Earth out there?

What do you think?

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Saluting South Florida’s Science Student Standouts!

On Saturday, February 7, Frost Science joined Miami-Dade County Public Schools for its 2015 STEM Expo!  There, hundreds of students from South Florida presented their totally innovative and forward-thinking science experiments. A dynamic array of museum personnel were there to judge these projects, as well as present a STEM-themed activity from our Upward Bound volunteer group. After an in-depth afternoon of presentations and critiques, we presented select winners with awards from our museum.  The following students were special standouts:

  • Luis Coto – “Science Pioneer” – Dr. Edward Whigham Elementary School
  • Jack Penney – “Science Pioneer” – Howard Drive Elementary School
  • Travis Smith – “Astronomy All-Star” – Lake Stevens Elementary School
  • Dayna Veazy – “Environmental All-Star” – Vineland K-8 Center
  • Angelene Vargas – “Chemistry All-Star” – West Hialeah Gardens Elementary School
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Eldredge “Biff” Bermingham, Ph.D. (Chief Science Officer at Frost Science) and Millard Lightburn, Ph.D. (District Science Supervisor K – 5, Miami-Dade County Public Schools) present Angeline Vargas with her special “Environmental All-Star” award on Saturday, February 7 at the STEM Expo.

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Frost Science’s Daniel and Yvonne ventured to Jack Penney’s school to present him with a “Magic Science” program as well as his certificate for being a “Science Pioneer”. In addition to his parents and teacher being there to support him, over 200 students were invited to join the fun as well!

Special thanks to Dr. Ava Rosales and Miami-Dade County Public Schools for inviting us to participate in their 2015 STEM Expo. We look forward to next year’s event!

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Out & About with Frost Science: CBS4 Marlins Weather Day

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On Thursday, May 21, Frost Science joined CBS4 and the Miami Marlins as we turned their state-of-the-art baseball stadium into an interactive, science-themed classroom! Students from Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Monroe counties attended Weather Day to learn about meteorology, forecasting, and even hurricane science and preparedness.

During our visit, Frost Science scored a home run with all guests as we had them “become the science,” simulating the life cycle of a thunderstorm.  Needless to say, it was a total blast (of lightning!).

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Museum personnel join the CBS4 Weather Team on the baseball diamond showcasing yet another dynamic community partnership that serves to make science-themed experiences accessible to all residents of South Florida and beyond.

Thank you CBS4 and the Miami Marlins for inviting us to partake in this all-star opportunity. Stay tuned for our next event in your community!

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