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FRAMING PATHWAYS TO ANSWERS: THE SCIENTIFIC PROCESS IN ACTION
STAYING COOL

SENSING THE INVISIBLE
THE HERSCHEL EXPERIMENT


Level: Middle School
Duration: 1-2 hours

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, students find out that there is radiation other than visible light arriving from the Sun. The students reproduce a version of William Herschel’s experiment of 1800 that discovered the existence of infrared radiation. The process of conducting the experiment and placing it in the historical context illustrates how scientific discoveries are often made via creative thinking, careful design of the experiment, and adaptation of the experiment to accommodate unexpected results. Students will discuss current uses of infrared radiation and learn that it is both very beneficial and a major concern for planetary explorations such as the MESSENGER mission to Mercury.

Essential Question
Are there forms of light other than visible light emitted by the Sun?

Portrait of Sir William Herschel, who discovered the existence of infrared radiation in 1800. (Picture credit: NASA/IPAC; http://www.ipac.caltech.edu/Outreach/Edu/herschel.gif)

Essential Concepts

  • Visible light consists of different colors.
  • Sunlightconsists of invisible forms of light in addition to visible light, one of which is infrared light.
  • Scientific discoveries are sometimes made by chance, as a by-product of another investigation.

MESSENGER Mission Connection

The MESSENGER mission to Mercury uses infrared light to study properties of the planet, and it is therefore beneficial to the mission. However, too much infrared radiation is detrimental to the spacecraft and its instruments, and engineers are faced with this problem when designing the MESSENGER spacecraft and mission.

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