Gizmo of the Week: Orbital Motion – Kepler’s Laws

December has a slew of astronomical birthdays. Annie Jump Cannon was born on Dec. 11, 1863. Tycho Brahe was born on Dec. 14, 1546. Isaac Newton was born on Dec. 25, 1642, and Johannes Kepler was born on Dec. 27, 1571. Kepler played a key role in our understanding of the solar system by describing the motions of planets in their elliptical orbits.

Students can explore Kepler’s laws with the Orbital Motion – Kepler’s Laws Gizmo. In the Gizmo, students manipulate the mass, position, and initial velocity of a simulated planet. They’ll discover how each of these factors affect the shape of the orbit, how the planet “sweeps out” equal areas in equal time periods, and how the period of the planet is related to its average distance from the star.

Johannes Kepler’s contributions to astronomy have been honored by the Kepler Spacecraft, a telescope orbiting the sun that has discovered over 2,000 exoplanets since its launch in 2009.