From astrophotography to molecular modelling and a debate, discover activities for 11–16 year olds to explore chemistry in the context of stars and outer space

In this set of activities, students discover key ideas relating to astrochemistry. Designed for 11–16 year olds, the resources explore a range of chemical concepts in an unfamiliar and stimulating context, giving students the opportunity to examine astronomical imaging, construct molecular models, engage in debate and practise scientific writing. Motivate and enthuse your students while investigating:

  • The elements and molecules found in stars, nebulas and the Interstellar Medium (ISM)
  • How chemical reactions might take place to produce new substances in outer space
  • Large molecules in space and whether these could be clues to extraterrestrial life
  • The patterns and conventions behind the names we give to molecules

Each activity includes instructions for students, as well as editable worksheets and resources available for download.

Plan a lesson around this topic

Try a selection of these activities as part of a complete lesson plan for 14–16 year olds, exploring substances in outer space and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

1. Seeing space

Summary

Students examine pictures of parts of the constellation Orion, including the Orion, Horsehead and Reflection nebulas. Using a table that links different colours in the images to particular substances, students identify the substances present in each nebula and gauge their relative abundance.

Download the resources

‘Seeing space’ worksheet

PDF | Editable Word document

Images of the Orion constellation

PDF

2. The Interstellar Medium

Summary

Students read a short introduction to the â€˜hydrogen problem’ (ie how hydrogen molecules can be formed in space at a constant rate). They then look at a series of images of the Milky Way to determine what substances are present, comparing the abundance and distribution of molecular hydrogen and complex molecules.

Additional handouts provide further information about hydrogen in space and the Interstellar Medium, with questions exploring why it may be more difficult for molecules to form in space and what may be involved in this process.

Download the resources

‘The Interstellar Medium’ worksheet

PDF | Editable Word document

Images of the Milky Way

PDF

‘Did you know about hydrogen?’ handout

PDF | Editable Word document

‘Did you know about the Interstellar Medium?’ handout

PDF | Editable Word document

3. Chemical reactions in the Interstellar Medium

Summary

Students read text adapted from a real research paper, featuring a series of experiments designed to find out how hydrogen molecules might form in the Interstellar Medium. They then work through a series of questions to check their understanding of what they have read and the key ideas involved.

In the final two questions, students consider some broader issues relating to scientific writing and research, reflecting on why scientists work in teams and how the research paper compares to how they write reports in school.

Note

The resources included with the activity in ‘The Interstellar Medium’ (above) provide background information and an introduction to this topic.

Download the resources

‘Chemical reactions in the Interstellar Medium’ worksheet

PDF | Editable Word document

4. Debate: Can we really do ‘space chemistry’ on Earth?

Summary

Students read two statements expressing views about the experiment presented in ’Chemical reactions in the Interstellar Medium’ (above). Using the evidence from the article and their own ideas, students answer a series of questions to decide which statement they agree with. They then discuss their views with a partner and work together to agree their answers.

Download the resources

‘Can we really do space chemistry on Earth?’ handout

PDF | Editable Word document

5. The basis for life: analysing large molecules in space

Summary

Students imagine they are part of a team of astrochemists analysing data from a radio telescope to explore the possibility of life in outer space. Working in groups, they must prepare a presentation or write a short scientific article based on their analysis.

Each member of the group works on a different task, from conducting background research on elements and practical techniques to building molecular models and drawing conclusions. The final paper should be agreed by the whole group, and should answer the question, ’Molecules in the ISM: are these clues to life in space?’.

Additional handouts provide background information about radio telescopes and how the names of some molecules relate to their structure.

Download the resources

‘The basis for life: analysing large molecules in space’ worksheet

PDF | Editable Word document

‘What’s in a name?’ handout

PDF | Editable Word document

‘Did you know about radio telescopes?’ handout

PDF | Editable Word document

6. The discovery of vinyl alcohol

Summary

Students learn about the discovery of a molecule called ‘vinyl alcohol’ in the Interstellar Medium in 2001. After reading a press release describing the discovery, students work through a series of questions to check and apply their understanding about what they have read. They explore why vinyl alcohol may give clues to life in outer space and consider different explanations for the presence of the molecule in the Interstellar Medium.

Note

This activity draws on resources included with ‘The basis for life: analysing large molecules in space’ (above).

Download the resources

‘The discovery of vinyl alcohol’ worksheet

PDF | Editable Word document

Additional resources

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