How can we detect life on other worlds too distant for spacecraft to visit?

About the Video Clip

Duration: 7 minutes
Grade Level: Best for grades 5+; content connects to NGSS standards for high school

How can we detect life on other worlds too distant for spacecraft to visit? By letting planets show their true colors. Learn how scientists are using spectroscopy to search for signs of life, or biosignatures, on faraway exoplanets based on the unique colors of their atmospheric chemistry.


Guiding Questions for Classroom Discussion

  • How do astronomers use light to understand other worlds?
  • What can colors tell us about planets around other stars?
  • How can spacecraft help us find evidence of life light years away?
  • In your own words, how would you define the "spectral fingerprint" of a planet?

Activity: CD Spectroscope

A homemade spectroscope made from a CD and a cardboard tube

From our friends over at the Exploratorium, this activity provides instructions on how to make your own spectroscope with easy-to-find materials. Be sure to check out the explainer videos, too!


Activity: Supernova Chemistry

Solar spectrum

This multi-day lesson at the high school level gives students an opportunity to identify elements using spectroscopy. The class will use spectrometers to measure the spectra of various light sources at 10 different lab stations.


Recommended Reading

Introduction to Spectroscopy
A primer written by teachers for teachers, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Mapping the Cosmos
An update from January 2022 on the progress of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.


Connections to the Next Generation Science Standards

While this video doesn't necessarily cover the following standards in depth, it is a compelling resource you can use to supplement your curriculum that does.

Discliplinary Core Idea
HS-PS4.B Electromagnetic Radiation:
Atoms of each element emit and absorb characteristic frequencies of light. These characteristics allow identification of the presence of an element, even in microscopic quantities.

Laurels for Living Worlds winner of Best of Earth festival 2021
We thank our donors

This production is funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation through Grant GBMF10870 to the Academy.

Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation