SPACE, THE FINAL FRONTIER...
Grades 3 - 8
To boldly go where no one has gone before...Thanks to the recent
exploration of space by manned and robotic spacecraft, mankind has begun
to accumulate a vast wealth of knowledge on our Solar System. When trying
to relate this information about our Solar System, it is often difficult
to get past some erroneous assumptions on the part of students regarding
the size and scale of our local neighborhood in space. Text books, limited
by their size, can't possibly show the relative sizes and distances of the
planets and the Sun on their pages. This, combined with the unbelievably
huge numbers involved, often leaves students with mistaken perceptions of
the actual relative size of the planets and the vast distances that separate
In this lesson, students will learn a common theory on how the Solar System
was formed, the major components of the Solar System and some of their physical
characteristics, and gain an understanding of the relative scale of the
size and distances among the bodies of the Solar System. This lesson is
to be part of a larger unit on space. Prior to this lesson, it is expected
that the students have investigated the Earth-Moon system and the relationship
each body has with the other (i.e., tides, phases of the Moon, some earthquakes,
related folklore, months, eclipses)
Earth, the Environment and Beyond, #12: The Solar System
Students will be able to:
- explain a commonly accepted theory of how the Solar System was formed
- name and locate the nine planets, the asteroid belt and the likely
location of the cometary cloud and describe their basic features model the
relative size and distance of the Earth-Moon system
- model the relative size and distance of the Solar System
- demonstrate mathematical operations such as multiplication, division
and working with fractions in developing a scale model of the Solar System
- construct the items for the above models
- define asteroid, Astronomical Unit (AU), comet, diameter, meteor,
orbit, planet, radius, satellite, Solar System, terrestrial, theory
Previewing Activity Materials (for each group of four students):
- 2 - packages of modeling clay or 2 cans play-doh (or equivalent)
- 1 - pencil
- 1 - piece of paper
- 1 - ruler
Viewing Activity Materials (for each student):
- 1 - Planetary Information Worksheet (attached at end of lesson)
Postviewing Activity Materials (for each of nine groups)
- 1-4 sheets of construction paper (multiple, or larger, sheets for
Jupiter and Saturn)
- 1 - pair of scissors
- 1 - ruler
- 1 - roll masking tape
- 1 - pen or pencil
- 1 - package of index cards
- 1 - copy of Planetary Information worksheet
Materials (for the teacher's use in the activities)
- 1 - trundle wheel (for measuring distances on the walk during the
- 1 - model of Sun made of cloth or paper (11.5 ft diameter, or 1/2
Sun @ 5.75 ft radius)
In this activity, students will estimate the size of the Moon
in relation to the Earth and construct models, from modeling clay or play-doh,
to represent these estimates. They will then estimate the relative distance
between the Earth and Moon. In both instances, the students will calculate
what the actual relative sizes and distance should be and compare these
to their estimates. Inform the students to be prepared to explain their
estimates. This will help the students to understand the size and distance
involved in the Earth-Moon system.
For each group of four students, provide the materials listed above under
Previewing Activity Materials.
Start the activity by asking the students in each group to make a prediction
on what the relative sizes of the Earth and the Moon are to each other.
After several minutes for discussion, have them sketch it on a piece of
paper so that everyone agrees on the group's prediction. Once a consensus
has been reached within each group, instruct them to mold their models,
using the clay, to the size of their drawings. Have each group explain to
the rest of the class why they chose the representations they did.
When all groups have completed this task, explain that the actual diameter
of the Moon is about one- fourth that of the Earth. Discuss how each group's
model compares to the actual scale and have each group adjust their models
to reflect the actual scale. They may use their rulers to help with this
Next, ask each group to estimate the relative distance between the Earth
and the Moon using their models. Allow several minutes for group discussion
before having them display their guesses. Again, ask each group to explain
their predictions to the rest of the class.
At the conclusion of the group explanations, inform the students that the
actual distance between the Earth and the Moon is 30 Earth diameters! Have
each group calculate, and demonstrate, this distance using their models.
Rulers may be helpful here, also.
To give the students a specific responsibility while viewing,
ask them, still in their groups of four, to be on the lookout for the following
information, which they will need to complete their worksheets (a template
of which is located at the end of this lesson plan, along with a completed
teacher's answer sheet): the type of planet (terrestrial or gas giant) the
distance of each planet from the Sun the number of satellites each planet
has what their atmospheres are made of
Explain that they will need this information in order to do the next activity,
and that the video will be shown twice so that they may gather their data.
Some of the planets are missing one or more of these pieces of information
in the video. It is up to each group to research this missing information
once they have completed their worksheets. In fact, very little information
is given on Pluto in the video. Encyclopedias, whether in print or on cd-rom,
would be a good place to start. One suggestion for each group may be to
assign one person within the group the responsibility for gathering a specific
piece of information. For example: one person will write down the type of
planet; another writes down the distances; another writes down the number
of satellites; and the last will write down what's in the atmospheres.
Make copies of the attached worksheets entitled "Solar System Data
Worksheet" and distribute to each student. An overhead transparency
made from the same templates will help during post- viewing discussion.
Instruct students to look up the definition of words in a dictionary and
complete each word before proceeding to the video.
Start the video at the part of the show titled "Origins
of the Solar System."
PAUSE video when narrator says, "One of the most widely accepted
theories states that it began as a mass of swirling clouds and gases that
rotated for several hundred million years."
Ask: "What is a theory? Is it stating a fact?" (A theory is an
educated guess that is a possible explanation for something. Therefore it
is not a fact.) Solicit some theories that have been proven wrong (i.e.,
that the Earth is flat; the Earth is the center of the universe; that everything
in the sky revolves around us; the Moon is made of cheese).
PAUSE video when narrator defines "terrestrial." Have students
repeat this back to you and have them identify which planets are terrestrial.
(Terrestrial means Earth-like. The terrestrial planets have metal cores
and consist of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.) Instruct the students to
label those planets with a "T" on the worksheet. Replay that segment
PAUSE video at SCIFAX question: "Are asteroids of value to the
human race?" before the answer is given. Solicit responses and discuss
with the class.
PAUSE video when narrator identifies the gas planets. Have students
label the gas planets with a "G" on their worksheets. (The gas
planets are Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.) Replay that segment if
PAUSE video at SCIFAX question: "How massive are comets?"
before the answer is given. Solicit responses and discuss with the class.
STOP video at the title "The Future of the Solar System."
REWIND video back to the title "Inside the Solar System"
and replay once more so that students can gather missed information or verify
the answers on their worksheets. Allow ample time for each group to research
any missing data and share its information among its members. Once this
is completed, show an overhead transparency of the same worksheet and complete
it as a class. This is to verify that everyone has the same information.
Tell students they are now going to do an activity which will
illustrate what they have seen on the video. This activity will consist
of two parts:
1. constructing the nine major planets to a scale of relative size, and
2. placing the planets in the correct order outward from the Sun and spaced
apart in a proper scale.
The two scales being used here are not the same. This activity is designed
so that it can be done indoors or outside. You will be provided with relative
distances so that you can fit it in most any available large space whether
it's a hallway, a gymnasium or your schoolyard. This means, of course, that
you will have to calculate their positions, but this makes an excellent
Materials needed for these activities by each group are listed in the Postviewing
Activity Materials section of this lesson plan.
Constructing the nine major planets
1. Have the class identify the nine major planets in our Solar System. Divide
the class into nine groups (one for each major planet).
2. Explain to the students that they are going to create a scale model of
the Solar System. Lead a short discussion on the usefulness of a scale model
in astronomy. (Things in space are too large and far away for direct study.)
3. On an index card, write down the name of a planet; its diameter (in miles);
and its size in the model. This information is listed after step 7 below.
Walk around to each group and assign them their planet. If you have a particular
group that needs to be challenged, assign them Pluto. They will have to
do the most research to gather all necessary data. Have each group keep
their planet a secret from the other groups. Secrecy adds a touch of mystery
as well as allowing the students to predict the sizes of the planets later
4. Ask each group to cut out their planets using the data on the index card.
They will need to perform a quick calculation first. (See worksheet.) Those
groups with the smaller planets may want to tape their planets to an index
card to make it easier to see. 5. Write the numbers 1 through 9 on the chalkboard
and have groups randomly place their planets, using masking tape, under
one of these numbers. Random placement lets the students predict which planet
6. Survey the class for their guesses as to which planet is which. Allow
time for ample discussion and have students refer to their worksheets for
assistance until the correct labels are made.
7. Ask students what major part of the Solar System is missing. Upon their
responding "the Sun" (hopefully!), take out your model of the
sun and discuss the size of the planets in relation to the Sun. Inform the
students that the Sun contains 99% of all the matter in the Solar System.
This illustration should drive this point home. You may want to tape the
planets to the Sun for effect.
The approximate sizes of the Sun and planets should turn out as follows:
Object Diameter (miles) Model size
Sun 900,000 11 1/2 FEET!
Mercury 3,000 1/2 inch
Venus 8,750 1 1/4 inches
Earth 8,750 1 1/4 inches
Mars 4,000 2/3 inch
Jupiter 86,000 13 1/4 inches
Saturn 72,000 11 inches
Uranus 30,000 5 inches
Neptune 30,000 5 inches
Pluto 1,400 1/4 inch
Placing the planets on a proper scale
This exercise is to be customized for the space available to you. Below
are instructions, including formulas, to help you achieve this.
1. Astronomers use a unit of measure called an Astronomical Unit (AU) to
represent the average distance between the Earth and the Sun. Therefore,
1 AU equals the distance between the Earth and Sun. The distances of all
of the other bodies in the Solar System from the Sun can be measured in
AU's, and they are as follows:
Planet Distance (in AU's)
2. Now your class needs to measure the distance available to it, whether
it's a gymnasium or a hallway (bends and turns are ok). If you have enough
space outside available to you, then the sky's the limit, so to speak. The
larger the space you can find, the better the effect. Take that distance,
subtract 11.5 feet for the diameter of the Sun (or 5.75 feet if you use
half a Sun). Divide this difference by 40 (because when Pluto is at its
farthest distance from the Sun, it is 40 AU's from the Sun). This distance
equals 1 AU.
3. Have each group calculate the approximate distance each planet should
be located from the Sun in your model by multiplying the AU's for each planet
by the figure calculated in step 2.
4. Have each group develop a statistic sheet from the Planetary Information
worksheet completed while viewing the video, and from other sources, to
be posted with their planet.
5. Before starting on your class walk, ask students to guess which planet
is the halfway point between the Sun and Pluto at its farthest point and
to keep their guesses in mind as they do the walk. Walk with the class through
your available space, starting at the Sun, and have one representative from
each planetary group place their planet in the appropriate place. At each
placing of a planet, have a student from that group recite the characteristics
of that planet from the statistic sheet prepared in step 4 above. After
Uranus (the correct pronunciation of which is "yurinis" not the
often mistaken match to a part of the anatomy which conjures giggles each
time it is spoken), inform the students that they are now at the halfway
point between the Sun and Pluto. If it is possible, instruct the students
to look back towards where they placed the Sun so that they might grasp
the extreme distances involved here.
6. Invite other groups ( i.e., other classes, administration, school board,
community visitors) to walk through your Solar System, perhaps with one
of your students as a guide.
7. Video tape a tour of your model for students to keep, for viewing at
the end of this unit and at the end of the year.
Visit a planetarium, or have a traveling planetarium visit your
school (check with local planetariums and your Yellow Pages).
Contact your local astronomy club and invite a guest speaker. These local
clubs are often very accommodating. Again, consult with your local planetarium
for this information.
Contact your regional NASA educational resource center for free, or low
cost, information and materials available to educators.
Watch, or more likely tape, a five-minute program called Star Hustler, hosted
by Jack Horkheimer, for weekly updates on happenings in the heavens that
can be observed by the naked eye. These happenings include the positions
of the planets, phases of the moon, meteor showers and constellations, among
other things. Check your local PBS schedule for viewing times.
Mathematics: Each planet has a different mass than that of Earth.
This means each planet has a different gravitational attraction. Research
these masses and have the students calculate their weights for each planet.
Art: Have students design and/or construct an environment for a manned mission
to their planet, or a satellite of their planet (manmade or natural). Social
Studies: Research the history of the exploration of the Solar System, both
manned and unmanned. Refer back to your Solar System model to see how little
man has really ventured out into space!
Language Arts: Read The Magic Schoolbus in the Solar System as a class.
Also have each group write a short paper describing everything from the
discovery of the planet, its physical characteristics, all facts and figures
gathered in the two activities performed above, the mythology behind the
planet's name and any astrological significance associated with it.
Master Teacher: Daniel E. Reidy
This Master Teacher would like to acknowledge John G. Radzilowicz and Jan
Derby, of the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord, NH, for their contribution
to this lesson plan.
Newfound Memorial Middle School, Bristol, NH
Click here to view the
worksheet associated with this lesson.
Lesson Plan Database
Thirteen Ed Online