Reach for the stars! Or maybe the exoplanets

Reach for the stars! Or maybe the exoplanets


By Grace Jacobs Corban

Grace Jacobs Corban is one of six recipients of the 2024 New Zealand Space Scholarship. She is a Visitor Experience host at Space Place and a Maths and Space Science tutor at Victoria University.

Planetarium shows at Space Place Te Ara Whānui ki te Rangi allow visitors to immerse themselves in new environments, like the surface of a distant planet, making impossible experiences real.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing how exciting space is for kids and adults and I love hearing about how people connect our planetarium shows to their lives, whether it’s how the night sky looks from their hometown or their thoughts on the possibility of life out there in the universe.

I worked as a Learning Specialist at Space Place for three years after I completed a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Physics at Victoria University Wellington and I moved into my current role as Visitor Experiences host last year when I was completing my Master of Science in Society.

I’ve always had a passion for space and I love sharing it with others. I’m excited to continue this through an internship at NASA starting later this month. This year the New Zealand Space Agency has provided six scholarships to postgraduate students to participate in three-month research projects at either the Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley, or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Los Angeles.

For my project, I’ll be working with JPL’s Exoplanet Exploration team from June, adapting science communication resources to align with the school curriculum. These resources will centre around one of my favourite topics; exoplanets, which are basically planets outside the solar system, orbiting a star other than the sun. I first got interested in exoplanets through my education work at Space Place.

Exoplanets were first discovered in the 1990s. Before then, the only planetary system we could study was the solar system. Exoplanets help us figure out what the solar system was like in the past, or what might happen to it in future. But it is hard to spot exoplanets. There are stars we can see in the night sky that have exoplanets, but you wouldn’t be able to spot the planet orbiting it, as it is much smaller than the star, and doesn’t make any of its own light. So, to find exoplanets, we study the light coming from distant stars and look to see if the brightness ever decreases (even by 1%). If this keeps happening at regular intervals, it could be because a planet is passing in front of the star.

This is how the seven planets orbiting Trappist-1 were found, and we explore them in the planetarium.

“We’re going to visit Trappist-1 b up close. But first, let’s give it a fun name.”

“Ben!”, “Basketball!”,“Billy-bob!”“Great! Let’s visit planet basketball.

That’s the kind of conversations we have when running planetarium shows at Space Place and I really enjoy seeing how willingly students throw themselves into imagining what conditions on another planet would be like, such as on Trappist-1 b (aka basketball). Experiences like these spark curiosity in students, and I know that having fun with learning built a life-long interest in science for me.

I’ll be bringing the perspective that I’ve gained at Space Place to my work at NASA and I’m planning to use this opportunity to make a difference back here in New Zealand. When I come back, I’ll begin a PhD in Mathematics Education and I’m looking forward to contributing to any work done around making science-learning fun, engaging, and inclusive to empower future generations of scientists.

Whether it is exploring exoplanets in the planetarium, seeing Saturn up close through the telescope, or being an astronaut in our Tūhura module, Space Place inspires all of us to reach for the stars.

  • Grace Jacobs Corban is one of six recipients of the 2024 New Zealand Space Scholarship. She is a Visitor Experience host at Space Place and a Maths and Space Science tutor at Victoria University.