Concept art showing water on exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f

Water Worlds

Happy World Water Day

Published03/22/2019 , by Gretchen Zampogna

Water is a vital part of our daily lives here on Earth. But what is the significance of water on other planets and their moons? How do we find water beyond Earth, and what does its presence say about the places it exists? These aren’t questions Putheawin Samphea and Camryn Schmidt might ever have expected to examine before they came to the Bell as planetarium education assistants, but now they’re diving in and teaching others what they’ve learned.

“A lot of astrophysicists look for earthlike planets, for atmospheres that could be capable of supporting life and the presence of elements we know sustain life on earth,” Schmidt says. Our solar system is unique, and it’s very unlikely that life outside our solar system would look like what we currently know and understand, she says, but we have to operate within our current understanding.

To try and answer their questions about water’s importance and its existence in places beyond Earth, Samphea and Schmidt have created original planetarium show Water on Other Worlds, which will be shown at the Bell’s March 20 After Hours event ahead of World Water Day. The show begins at home on Earth, looking at how water got here in the first place. Then it zooms outward to examine the water on Jupiter and Saturn’s moons, and then finally travels even farther to the explore water possibilities on exoplanets in the Kepler-1647 and TRAPPIST-1 systems (as shown in the conceptual artwork above).

Since neither of them had any prior experience using the technology used to program and create planetarium content, they had to learn as they went. Samphea had never seen a planetarium show before starting work at the Bell, so she has especially appreciated the chance to learn something new.

A junior studying physics and Earth science, Schmidt found Uniview simple enough to use despite her lack of computer programming experience. “Most of what I’m working with is essentially preloaded into the program and I just figure out what I want to use,” she says.

Because they’re not programming new clips, Schmidt and Samphea must use existing content to tell their story, but have found enough material to get the job done. Samphea, a physics major, says the project has taught her to think like a teacher. She and Schmidt have to consider audience members’ varying levels of knowledge on the topic, being sure to keep their explanations simple and understandable.

“I really like having the opportunity to understand how to do this, how to build a show, [and] I like having the opportunity to share something I’m passionate about with other people,” Schmidt says.

Schmidt and Samphea inside the planetarium

Camryn Schmidt (left) and Putheawin Samphea (right) preparing for their planetarium show debut on March 20.

Student Life

Samphea, class of 2019, was initially interested in the College of Science and Engineering when she enrolled at the U of M. On realizing the required prerequisites would delay her degree, though, she decided to try the College of Liberal Arts. “After my first year in CLA, I liked the structure and really liked being exposed to other courses I wouldn’t have even considered, so I decided to stay in CLA,” she says.

Samphea, who is also minoring in sustainability studies and mathematics, was drawn to the flexibility of a physics degree: “There are all sorts of occupations a physicist can do, like software development, technology, research, or teaching. “It’s a very flexible major,” she says.

Her current role as planetarium education assistant at the Bell has offered welcome variety, too. Samphea leads school group tours, takes interpretive guide shifts in the Nova Galleries and at the woolly mammoth diorama, and works in the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium. In the planetarium, Samphea has a chance to facilitate shows, give presentations, and drive the computer that controls the images on the planetarium’s done. The most unique thing she’s done, though, is create an original planetarium show with another student worker, Camryn Schmidt.

“I applied [at the Bell] because it was a much cooler job I could do as a student than a lot of the jobs I was seeing,” Schmidt says. Once she started the job in May 2018, she says she found an educational and patient place where supervisors really care about making sure she understands the material and feels supported.

That’s an important aspect for Schmidt, who went to high school in Brainerd where the only AP STEM classes available to her were statistics, chemistry and biology. Coming into the U as an undergrad, she realized students around her had already completed calculus 1 and 2, and her original plan to major in chemical engineering started to look difficult because of its particularly competitive nature.

“Nobody in my family is involved in the sciences, so I needed a spot where I’d feel more comfortable being unsure with what I wanted to do and how I’d get there,” Schmidt says. She eventually changed her study focus to physics and earth science, but the planetarium education assistant role has opened up yet another avenue of learning.

“I really like looking at planetary science, the behavior of planets, and why planets look the way they do because there is a diversity of planets within the solar system and also a lot of exoplanets that we’re newly discovering,” she says. “And also,” she adds with a smile, “space is pretty.”

That visual aspect of storytelling is important in planning and creating their planetarium show. Schmidt and Samphea have found that beyond teaching an audience about the significance of water and where it’s found, they have to find examples that are fun for the audience to look at while they listen to the presentation.

Schmidt is looking forward to sharing the work with a live audience. “I think it’s really cool,” she says. “You look at the scale of humanity and how insignificant we are in the universe, and also how humans have found a way to create significance, in that we’re looking at the same stars in the same sky as humans 10’s of 1000’s of years ago looked at.”