Are there other worlds out there?
Are there other worlds out there?


The first discovery of an “exoplanet”—a planet outside of our solar system—came as recently as 1995. Since then, there have been more than four hundred discoveries. Astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger is at work on the next step: examining these planets, and any Avatar-like moons, for signs of life. She leads a discussion of the burgeoning field of planet hunting, which is bringing us ever closer to a new view of the starry skies—from a universe of distant fires to a universe of other lands.

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Lisa Kaltenegger is fascinated by the search for planets around other stars and the question of how we can decipher their spectral fingerprints to know if they are like our own Earth. She is a member of NASA’s Executive Committee on Exoplanet Exploration Program Analysis Group (EXOPAG), the NASA Astrobiology Institute on Advent of Complex Life. She has received several awards, among them the America’s Young Innovators from Smithsonian magazine (2007) and the Beatrice Tinseley Fellowship (2009). She also has an asteroid named after her (040377). Kaltenegger received her Ph.D. from the University of Graz in 2005, awarded personally by the Austrian president for outstanding academic achievements.

  1. Salvatore Cellura
    1:45 pm on April 14th, 2010

    As soon as available, I will purchase (or find someone who can) “Avatar” for classroom activity. Mainly it follows two main passions of mine. A love of the Earth & the possibility of life (like ours) on other planets. Whether these planets are inhabited or not, we must find a way to get there. As Stephen Hawking said, “we need to get off this (Earth) planet.”
    However, saying that, we must approach any new life forms with respect and awe. We must not destroy what we do not understand merely for our own needs.
    If you have any literature or videos on Ms. Kaltenegger, I would love to introduce her to my Astronomy classes. I am stunned and awed that she has found planets in other solar systems in my life time.
    The science-fiction that drove a boys imagination is now science fact! How far can we go in my lifetime? Only God can answer that question, and He still does not tell me.
    I am very happy to discover another source of information for my poor ($) astronomy class. The textbook I have to teach from is 14 yrs. old! In order to keep up with all the lastest findings, I take lesson plans right out of monthly Astronomy Magazine lent to me through my school library. Ain’t it great?!!
    Please keep me posted insofar as Astronomy, Environmental Science, & Biology information. The more information is available to me the richer (intellectually) I can design my curriculum.
    Please keep me informed of any new or continuing information stream.
    Thank you,
    Salvatore Cellura, M. Ed.
    Start H. S
    2300 Tremainsville
    Toledo, OH 43613

    Eric Ekman Reply:

    Hi Salvatore,

    You may be interested in the Smithsonian’s newest issue of “Smithsonian in Your Classroom” entitled ‘Universe’ ( SIYC is Smithsonian Education’s free biannual publication for teachers. Each issue focuses on a single subject and includes a background article, lesson plans, and an activity to complete with your class. Our newest issue on the universe is all about astronomy, with answers to many questions ranging from “how can we date the beginning of the universe” to “what is a star?”. Our activity, how big, how far, how old, gives students a hands on activity for putting the immensity of the universe in perspective. Of particular interest is the Smithsonian Profile, “Lisa Kaltenegger, Planet Hunter” which tells a bit about Dr. Kaltenegger and includes an interview with her asking questions such as, “do you think that there is life elsewhere? What about intelligent life?”. As said before, SIYC is a free publication and can be downloaded in its entirety from the link above. Or, if you would prefer, you (or any other interested teachers) can send me an email at and I will mail a physical copy to you asap.

    I encourage you to browse the other SIYC publications as well, such as the “Introduction to the Nature Journal” issue which introduces students to the role and techniques of creating a nature journal and asks students to make their own observations.

    You should check out as well and use our search feature to look for other great (and free) Smithsonian educational resources.

    Another place you may want to visit is the educational resources section of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics website . Of particular interest is the micro-observatory where, using the internet, you can control real telescopes and recieve pictures back via email .

    I hope you find these resources helpful.