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Exploring the Solar System

What You Need

Materials

  • Science journals/notebooks
  • Poster-sized paper 
  • Colored pencils or magic markers
  • Graph paper
  • Scotch tape
 
Exploring the Solar System

Purpose

To introduce students to earth's moon and the eight planets in our solar system.


Context

Students likely know some information about the other planets in our solar system as well as about earth's moon. In this lesson, students will build on this knowledge as they research one of the other planets in order to determine whether a manned mission to that planet would be feasible. In the process, students will learn about the geology, composition, and orbit of this planet. Students will determine such factors as: what it is like, whether or not it is habitable, and how its orbit affects planning a trip. The lesson begins with a whole class exercise in which students plan a trip to the moon. In addition to giving students a broader knowledge of the moon, this exercise gives you an opportunity to model the steps that students will take as they work in small groups to research and develop their own proposals. 

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.8 Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.

Motivation

If you or your students want to do some preliminary research on the moon before the start of the lesson, go to these sites:

Note: These websites have been updated to reflect the change in Pluto's classification as a dwarf planet, rather than a planet.

To begin the lesson, ask students to imagine that they are planning an exploratory mission to earth's moon. Make three headings on the blackboard (see below). Brainstorm answers for the following:

I. Physical Features

Ask students what they think the moon is like. They may know the obvious; e.g., there are craters on the moon, and the moon orbits earth. Prompt more responses by asking questions about water, weather, and gravity.

II. Ability to Sustain Life

Ask students these questions:

  • Can you live on the moon?
  • What do you need to live on earth?

Students should realize that these are the same things they will need to live anywhere. The list should include basic needs such as food, water, shelter, oxygen, and possibly personal needs, such as entertainment.

III. Flight Plan

Ask students these questions:

  • How would you get there? (This question may be more difficult. The point of this question is to discuss the distance, orbit, and logistical planning involved in traveling to the moon.)
  • Can the shuttle leave at any time to get to the moon?
  • What does the moon's orbit have to do with the planning?
  • What about weather?

Development

Have students break into groups of five students. Each group will be assigned to plan a trip to a planet (other than Earth): Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, or Pluto. For the purposes of this lesson, Pluto can still be assigned to students to complete the assignment. Although its status as a planet has changed, it is still considered a dwarf planet and still possesses the physical characteristics that students will explore in this lesson. You may wish to discuss with students why it is that Pluto is no longer considered a planet by definition. Explain that Pluto is now considered a dwarf planet, which according to the International Astronomical Union is defined as a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, (c) has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a satellite. 

Explain to the groups that they will create a proposal for a trip to their assigned planet. Students will use what they have discovered through research to argue for or against planning a trip to the planet. For those planets that would not appear to sustain life, groups must be creative in trying to find a way to explore the planet, such as landing on one of the planet's moons, putting a space station in orbit around the planet, or sending a robotic spacecraft. After finding a creative solution, however, groups may still choose to argue against a mission provided they can back their decision with good reasoning. For example, a group may decide against a mission due to factors such as harmful elements, budget, time, etc.

The final proposal could be a web-based or Power Point presentation, booklet, or series of posters. Each group will present and defend its findings to the class. For detailed instructions on the required elements of the proposal, distribute the Exploring the Solar System student sheet to the members of each group. 


Researching the Planet

I. Physical Features  Each group should investigate the physical features of its destination planet. Students should look for information on the planet's composition, geology, weather, atmosphere, moons, etc. Students can use their Exploring the Solar System student esheet to find relevant information at these sites and should explore all of them: 

Tell students to gather research on their planets by taking notes and making a list of similarities between their assigned planet and earth. Once the list is complete, have them discuss and record how the similarities and differences would have an impact on a trip to that planet. 

II. Ability to Sustain Life 

Students can refer to the list they compiled in activity one for this part of the lesson. They may have their own personal ideas about what they will need for survival on their planet. They can explore NASA's Ames Research Center to add to their list of necessities. First, students should use their esheet to go to Advanced Life Support and read that opening page.

Students can also continue to explore the same sites listed above for this segment. If students need guidance, you may want to lead them through the following process to figure out how to proceed with a plan:

First, by looking at the comparison of similarities and differences to earth, decide if the planet can host humans. If it seems that the planet is not a place that humans can live, ask students to brainstorm ways to make up for the lack of or uninviting elements. For example, there is not enough oxygen on Mars, however there is frozen water ice at the poles; students could consider melting the water to make oxygen. Venus is clearly too hot to live on, however, students may think of how to create living quarters that keep humans cool.

If students decide that there is no way to live on a planet (for instance, it would be impossible to build a base on a gas planet like Jupiter and the radiation would kill a person), they can consider the idea of landing on one of the planet’s moons or putting a space station in orbit. If this is the case, direct these particular groups to use their esheet to go to International Space Station, particularly the sections on Assembly and The Crew.

Finally, if students decide that sending a robot would be the best way to explore a planet, have them go to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They can click on their planet and then click on the other robotic missions that have already happened. This will give them an idea of what has already been discovered.

Now students will design their base camp or space station. As part of the proposal, students should create a labeled diagram that includes facilities for all of the necessities. 

III.  Flight Plan

Often on websites and pictures, the planets are lined up in a straight line, but students should be reminded that the planets are rarely aligned. Have students use their esheet to go to Our Solar System on the Windows to the Universe website. They should then click on their planet. Once on their planet page, they can choose to view the animation of that planet's orbit around the sun. This animation also shows the planet's position in relation to earth. Then, students can look at the Table of Planets and study the orbital period for their planet in relation to earth. They should chart the orbit of their planet and earth. You may want to have them chart two years' worth (or as many as are needed) in order to show that they will need to figure out where their planet should be in relation to earth. The chart of orbits should be included in the final proposal/presentation. 

Have students discuss the orbits of their planet and earth. For example, Earth takes twelve months to orbit the sun, Mars takes eighteen.

Have students answer these questions: 

  • How long do you want your trip to be?
  • Where does the planet need to be in its orbit?
  • Where does earth need to be in its orbit to have a successful trip?

Since much of this lesson is imaginary, students may be somewhat unrealistic about how long it will take to get to a certain planet. It takes eight months to get to Mars, so you may want to give them that as a gauge. However, the whole point of this exercise is to determine the orbit of the the planet, and recognize its importance as a consideration in mission planning.

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Assessment

Group Assessment
Groups should present their proposals to the class, arguing for or against the mission and providing evidence to support their conclusion. Students' proposals should be assessed on the basis of how well they covered the required elements outlined on the Exploring the Solar System student sheet. 

Individual Assessment
To assess students' understanding in a novel context, have them write a short essay. Tell them to imagine that ten million years ago there was a tenth planet in our solar system. What might it have been like? 

The essay should address these questions: 

  • Where was it? (Describe where the planet was in relation to the existing planets.)
  • What was the atmosphere like? (Compare it to an existing planet.)
  • What was the surface of the planet like? (Compare it to an existing planet.)
  • Describe the climate, size, orbit, etc.

Have students draw a picture of the solar system with the tenth planet added. This final exercise will allow you to assess students' understanding of what ideas are plausible relative to what they have just learned about the solar system. In this essay, students should demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the planet's distance to the sun and its features.


Extensions

Athena Project offers a multimedia tour of the solar system. It uses Internet resources to do a different type of lesson on an assigned planet. The lesson incorporates some quirky, fun exercises such as figuring out your age and weight on another planet. You could use this lesson to build on the lesson students have just finished. Assign students to stick to the same planet they have been researching as they go through this lesson.


If you are interested in having your class learn more about earth's moon, there are teacher's guides and lesson plans available at Lunar Prospector.


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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards
AAAS