Mini-Lab Activities

Mini-lab activities

Mini-lab activities have been designed for use by students with limited background in mathematics, and give students an option of using either an equation or a graphical approach. Basic familiarity with high school math, including simple trigonometry, is required for some. Some would be appropriate as homework assignments, while others are designed to be done as group activities in class. Some make use of online resources from other sites. Their continued availability is not guaranteed!

Sources for images, data, and activities are gratefully acknowledged in the individual files. All files are in Word format to allow easy editing to adapt the mini-labs to your classroom situation.

Astronomy fundamentals

  • Size and Scale asks students to explore the sizes and distances of important objects in the Universe, and to rank objects according to distance, size, and mass.
  • Where Are We? asks students to plot familiar astronomical objects on a projected Milky Way plane, and to map the Galaxy’s spiral arms.
  • Parallax uses two photographs taken on the IU campus. Students compute the distance to the lamppost from the position of the photographer.
  • Scientific Notation. This activity is adapted from the Institute for Energy and Environment Research, and helps students review and practice scientific notation.
  • Barnard's Star. Students determine the proper motion of Barnard’s Star from two images taken 60 years apart.
  • Essential Facts and Concepts (Word file) identifies specific facts, definitions, quantities, and relationships that will be used throughout the course and that students must memorize to provide a shared vocabulary.

The night sky

  • Viewing the Sky (Word file) provides basic instruction in the use of a sky chart and some simple activities while viewing the sky.
  • Visualizing the Earth and Moon in Space (Word file) allows students to practice visualizing the spatial relationships between the Earth, Moon and Sun.
  • Morning/Evening Star (Word file) uses NASA’s Solar System Simulator to examine the positions of the Earth, Venus, and the Sun on specific dates to help students connect the positions of planets in the sky to their locations in the Solar System. You will have to revise with your own dates!
  • Stellarium: Introduction to the Stellarium app for exploring the night sky.


  • Electromagnetic Radiation (Word file) acquaints students with the concepts of frequency and wavelength and provides basic vocabulary for discussing light.
  • Waves asks students to compute wavelength, speed, or frequency for sound waves, tsunami waves, light waves, and gravity waves.
  • Light and Color. Students examine astronomical images using red and blue theatrical gels to understand how astronomers use filters to extract astronomical information. You can either use NASA lithographs or display images as Powerpoint slides.
  • Old Faithful in the IR. Students examine optical and infrared images of the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park, both to gain experience with pseudo-color and to explore how pseudo-color can be used to convey information about physical conditions. Adapted from Cool Cosmos at IPAC.
  • Infrared Camera. Students experiment with the infrared camera to explore how brightness in the infrared depends on temperature.
  • Temperature. Students apply Wien’s Law to determine temperature and peak wavelength for familiar objects. The IR camera or thermometers can be used to find temperatures. A section on the temperature of the CMB is also included.
  • Emission Spectra. Students view and draw the emission spectra of hydrogen, neon, and mercury using cathode lamps. This can also be done using web-based applets or spectra in a powerpoint presentation.
  • Making a Color Image. Students can use the Astronomy in Color website to create color images from multi-wavelength data.

Solar System

  • Kepler’s 1st and 2nd Laws: Students explore the shapes of orbits in the Solar System and what they mean for planets.
  • Kepler’s 3rd Law: Students explore the relationship between semi-major axis and orbital period in the Solar System and what they mean for planets.
  • Exploration: A short worksheet about NASA exploration of the Solar System. Needs updating!
  • Impact Craters: Students look at impact craters on Earth and estimate the frequency of such impacts.
  • Terrestrial Planets: Students compare the surfaces of the terrestrial planets. Needs updating with Messenger results!
  • Saturn’s Moons: Students compare the surfaces of Saturn’s Moons.
  • The Sun. Students view time lapse movies of the Sun to learn about the Solar Cycle.
  • Eclipse Activities for P-6 – Eclipse activities for primary through 6th grade aligning with Common Core standards.



  • Solar Energy (Word file). Students estimate the lifetime of the Sun. Students are given all the information needed to make this estimate including the mass of the Sun, the mass of hydrogen, the Earth’s semi-major axis, and the efficiency of the hydrogen to helium fusion. All of these numbers are given in simple terms appropriate to general education and the students are guided step by step through the mathematics to make the estimate.
  • The Nearest and Brightest Stars (Word file) is an exercise in constructing and interpreting Hertzsprung-Russell diagrams. Students are given data on two stellar populations; the stars which are nearest to our own sun, and the stars which appear brightest when viewed from earth. The data in the tables includes information about each star’s distance, absolute and apparent magnitude, and temperature. Each group is asked to make plots of absolute magnitude as a function of temperature for each of these stellar populations. They are then required to identify the main sequence, as well as giant and white dwarf stars, on the resulting HR diagrams. The exercise concludes with a series of questions which analyze the HR diagram, compare brightness with distance, and determine differences between the two samples.
  • 30 Doradus Star Forming Region. Students identify features in an image of the 30 Doradus star forming region.
  • Molecular Clouds. Students use the physical parameters of molecular clouds to determine if the clouds are stable against gravitational collapse.
  • Proplyds. Students identify proplyds in a Hubble image of the Orion star forming region.
  • Star Formation Cartoon. Students create a cartoon showing the process and stages of star formation.
  • Stellar Spectra (Word file) demonstrates to student show astronomers use absorption lines to sort stars into spectral classes. Each group is given an envelope containing 20 or more spectra spanning the breadth of the Harvard classification system. The students are asked to examine these spectra and0 sort them into as few groups as possible, while maintaining only groups with stars that look similar.
  • Concept Map for Star Formation (PPT file) helps to organize the process of star formation into concrete steps. Students use a list of terms to fill in a concept map of star formation.
  • Debris Disks. Students find debris disks around stars in IC 4556 using Spitzer data to find IR excesses at 24 microns.
  • Finding Dusty Disks with Spitzer: Teacher Guide, Student Worksheet, PowerPoint, Black Body CurvesData.
  • Investigating Dust in the Trifid Nebula (this one takes time!): Images available on request. Teacher Guide, Student Worksheet.
  • Familiar Stars. Students explore the role of temperature, radius, and distance in the brightness of nearby stars.
  • The HR Diagram. The HR Diagram. Students plot both the nearest stars and the brightest stars in the sky to produce an HR diagram.
  • Jewelbox. Students measure the color and brightness of stars in the Jewelbox star cluster and plot them on an HR diagram to determine the cluster's age. This minilab is based on the NOAO Jewels of the Night activity.
  • Exploring Star Clusters. Using the Star Cluster tool, students can estimate the brightness and temperature of stars in clusters and use these to determine cluster ages.
  • Finding Novae in Andromeda. Students can use the NovaSearch tool to discover novae in the Andromeda galaxy and measure their brightness over time.
  • Balloons are a great way to simulate both the initial mass function and the evolution of a star cluster. In a large class, students pick up a balloon from a bowl on their way into class. The bowl includes large blue and white balloons, medium yellow balloons, and small orange and red balloons, in numbers consistent with a cluster initial mass function. At the appropriate time in class, students blow up the balloons - the white, blue, orange, and red balloons are tied off, but the yellow balloons are not. Once the star cluster is “formed,” it is allowed to age. The blue, and then white, balloons are popped, the yellow ones are allowed to “fizzle,” and the orange and red ones hang around “forever.” I’ll usually show Rob Scharein’s HR Diagram Simulator while the cluster evolves, to guide students as to when to pop or fizzle their balloons. (Be sure to have students pick up and dispose of the balloon debris at the end of class!)
  • Balloons are also a great way to simulate radiative and convective heat transfer when we learn about the interior of the Sun.
  • Star Clusters. Students examine a set of cluster color magnitude diagrams to determine ages and distances.
  • Nova Aquila 1999 Light Curve (Word file) asks students to plot a light curve for Nova Aquila 1999.
  • Supernova Nucleosynthesis. Students identify emission lines of various elements in an x-ray spectrum of a supernova remnant.
  • Crab Nebula. Students measure the expansion rate and age of the Crab Nebula.
  • Chemical Evolution. Students consider what the composition of the universe would be if it contained only high mass or low mass stars.
  • Interview. Students write a script of a talk radio interview with the Ring Nebula, Sirius B, the Cass A Supernova remnant, or the Cygnus X-1 black hole.


  • Globular Clusters. Students plot the locations of globular clusters to find the center of the Milky Way.
  • The Orbit of the Sun. Students calculate the orbital period of the Sun around the Milky Way, the number of times the Sun has orbited, and the mass interior to the solar circle.
  • Determining Spiral Structure. Students plot the locations of H II regions to determine the location of a Galactic spiral arm.
  • Milky Way Rotation Curve. Students use Kepler’s Law to estimate the orbital speeds of stars in the outer part of the Milky Way and compare their estimates with the observed rotation curve.
  • Milky Way SMBH. Students estimate the mass of the Milky Way’s central black hole from the orbit of the cloud falling into the black hole.
  • Galaxy Classification. Students draw, classify, and label galaxies shown in a Powerpoint slide. Choose your favorite galaxies!
  • Cepheids in M100. Students determine the distance to M100 by examining the light curves of Cepheids in that galaxy. This minilab is based on an exercise from ESO.
  • Diameters of Spiral Galaxies. Students measure the diameters of spiral galaxies to determine the distances to these galaxies. This minilab uses a web tool at the University of Washington, originally developed by Ana Larson.
  • SN Ia in M51. Students examine images of a supernova in M51 to determine if it is Type Ia or Type II.
  • The Magnitudes of SN Ia. Students examine the light curves of several SN Ia in galaxies of known distance to determine the absolute magnitude of SN Ia. This minilab is based on an original lab from Princeton. SN Ia Light Curves from Princeton
  • The Hubble Law. Students measure the redshifts of Ca II lines in galaxy spectra to determine the Hubble constant. This minilab uses a web tool at the University of Washington and is based on a lab developed by Ana Larson.
  • The Extragalactic Distance Scale and the Hubble Law (Word file) introduces students to the proportionality which exists between a galaxy's distance and recessional velocity. The students are given a data table containing the velocities and distances in megaparsecs to several clusters of galaxies, and asked to plot distance as a function of velocity. Once this has been accomplished and the linear relationship discovered, there are several questions involving the use of the graph to estimate the Hubble constant, recessional velocities, etc. The exercise concludes with an estimation of the age of the universe.
  • The Age of the Universe. Students estimate the age of the universe based on their measurements of distance and velocity.
  • Galaxy Evolution. Students examine images of galaxy clusters to determine the fraction of elliptical galaxies in clusters at different distances (this one needs more work)
  • Supermassive Black Holes. Students determine the masses of SMBH in galaxies from measurements of velocity dispersion.
  • Colliding Galaxies. Students use the GalCrash applet developed by Chris Mihos to learn about galaxy collisions and how they affect the evolution of galaxies.
  • Galaxy Mergers. Students use the Cannibal applet developed by Chris Mihos to learn about galaxy mergers and how they affect the evolution of galaxies.
  • Rotation Curve. Students measure the rotation curve of NGC 2742 to measure its dynamical mass, and also estimate its luminous mass to estimate the proportion of dark and luminous matter.
  • Velocity Dispersion of the Coma Cluster. Students use a Java Applet developed by Chris Mihos at Case Western to determine the dynamical mass of the cluster.
  • Coma Mass Budget. Students compare the dark mass and luminous mass in the Coma Cluster of Galaxies.


  • What Is Redshift?. Students explore the relation between redshift, distance, and look-back time for distant galaxies.
  • Cosmic Acceleration. Students examine data for high-redshift objects to discover the acceleration of the Universe.
  • Large Scale Structure with the Hubble Deep Field(HDF). Students plot a histogram of redshifts in the Hubble Deep Field to look for large scale structure. This activity requires an image of the HDF developed at the University of Washington: (hdf_z.gif).
  • Galaxy Voids. Students examine maps of galaxies to learn about the distribution of galaxies in space.
  • CMB Temperatures. Students determine the “stretch factor” since the origin of the CMB radiation.
  • Variations in the CMB. Students explore the distribution of sizes of warmer and cooler regions of the CMB.
  • Big Bang Nucleosynthesis. Students flip pennies to determine the helium abundance produced in the Big Bang.
  • Create-A-Universe. Students explore the impact of different assumptions and models on the age and size of the universe. This exercise uses a Java applet.
  • Assumptions in Cosmology asks students to discuss and record what assumptions about the Universe seem appropriate and what the implications of those assumptions might be. Students also consider model universes that are/are not homogeneous and/or isotropic.
  • Steady State vs. Big Bang Models asks students to compare what steady state and a big bang universes might look like and what observations might help us decide which model better describes our universe.


  • 51 Peg’s Planet. Students examine the velocity curve of 51 Peg to learn about its planet.
  • Planet Transits. Students use planet transit data to determine the properties of exoplanets.
  • Habitable Zones. Students use the web-based Planet Temperature Calculator at IU to determine if exoplanets fall in their stars’ habitable zones.
  • The Drake Formula. Students use the web-based Drake Formula Calculator at IUB to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations in the Galaxy.
  • The Mass of Planet Kepler 22’s Host Star. Students use Kepler’s law to calculate the mass of the central star of the Kepler 22 system.
  • Planets around Other Stars (Word file) leads student to consider how planets are detected through radial velocity measurements and how the planets compare to those in our own solar system.
  • How Common is Life in the Milky Way? (Word file) allows students to estimate how common life might be in our galaxy using the Drake equation.


  • Simple Telescope asks students to measure the focal length and radius of curvature of a 16’ parabolic mirror using string, a yardstick, a white card, and a light source. Instructors at IU are welcome to borrow the set of four mirrors in my office.
  • Funding Panel. Students review a set of proposals for new telescopes to recommend whether the proposed facility should be built. Students should consider scientific goals, location (space or ground), atmospheric transmission, angular resolution, and cost.
  • Black Holes! (Word file) encourages students to think about what a black hole is and why they are difficult to detect. Students are given a graph of Schwarzchild Radius as a function of mass. A series of questions help students develop a sense of mass and scale.
  • A page of suggested student projects is also available.
  • Exo-Folktales – Explore and categorize folk tales on an alien world to encourage creative writing with a science theme.