The Solar System

Time required to complete this unit:

This page is under development and may be edited at any time. Some resources have not been cataloged, pending project approval.

3 weeks, or 12.5 hours, or 750 minutes (estimated)

Earth Science Content:

Key Terms: solar system, planet, asteroid, comet, Kuiper Belt, Oort Cloud, accretion, terrestrial planet, Jovian planet

Unit Storyline

4.6 billion years ago, in a now-familiar corner of the Universe within an arm of the emerging Milky Way galaxy, a randomly-moving cloud of interstellar gases and dust several light-years across found itself slowly overcome with a preponderance of density. As the contraction grew in force, spinning along its axis and gathering center mass, gas particles collided and came together to form the burgeoning furnace of our protosun. At the same time, the gases and microscopic solids that circled our infant star, collapsed to form the first extra-solar bodies in our solar system, the protoplanets. These gigantic accretions soaring through the nebular disc in the vast vacuum of space continued to coalesce for the next several million years forming the planetesimals. The fiery violence at the center of our solar system came to a crescendo 50 million years later, when the temperature and pressure of the protosun jumpstarted the fusion process.

Our sun had secured its place in the Universe, a burning behemoth containing the vast majority of our solar system's mass. Solar winds blew forth, trumpeting away excess gas and dust into interstellar space, whilst other rocky objects abounded in the near regions. Out beyond the frost line, the giant planets were growing, gathering massive amounts of water from the infalling ice trapped in the low pressure area. They grew so large that some of them could pull in the lightest of elements, hydrogen and helium, to add to their size.

The sun produced great warmth in the inner system, so it was in these inner regions that the swirling rocky silicates and metals came together to form the terrestrial planets. Our Earth is the third among these, nestled just so in the habitable zone, and only slightly perturbed when a gargantuan impact sent a moon off into our orbit Our moon has become a constant companion in our long-travelling journey through this Universe.

Developed by the DIG Texas Blueprints Education Interns and the Central Texas Development Team

Students will be able to (do)

  • Design a scale model of the Solar System.
  • Practice math skills (e.g., working with ratios).
  • Explain the uses and limitations of scale models.
  • Identify characteristics of each of our Solar System's planetary bodies and explore the differences between them.
  • Contrast the characteristics of comets, meteors, and asteroids including their orbital regions.
  • Conduct research and mount a scientific debate.

Students will know

  • Differences between terrestrial and gas-giant planets in the solar system including structure, composition, size, density, orbit, surface features, tectonic activity, temperature, and suitability for life.
  • Our solar system was formed through the process of accretion.
  • How to determine scales and use them to calculate distances in a scale model.
  • The purpose of a scale model and its limitations.
  • Historical and current hypotheses for the origin of the moon, including the collision of Earth with a Mars-sized planetesimal.

Activities

The activities we have selected are congruent with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and are arranged to build upon one another. Therefore, to follow the storyline we recommend that teachers complete the activities in the order provided. To open an activity in a new tab or window, right click the activity link and select the preferred option.

Evolution of Our Solar System: Time Lineup

View Activity
http://www.lpi.usra.edu/education/timeline/activity/

In this activity from the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) Lunar and Planetary Institute, learners work in groups or as a class to determine the order of events that formed our solar system.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry, Challenge or problem-solving

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 45 minutes

How Planets Form

View Activity
http://lasp.colorado.edu/education/outerplanets/solsys_planets.php

The University of Colorado at Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) website outlines facts about terrestrial and Jovian planet formation with readings and interactive animations.

Instructional Strategies: Reading

Resource Type: Visualization (static visualization, animation, simulation)

Time Required: 15 minutes

Modeling Planetary Interiors and Differentiation

View Activity
http://www.lpi.usra.edu/education/workshops/unknownMoon/Tuesday/Activity_Differentiation_Planetary_Interiors.pdf

In this activity from USRA's Lunar and Planetary Institute, learners model the interior structure of the terrestrial planets and the process of differentiation using solids and liquids of different densities.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 45 minutes

The Voyage Scale Model Solar System

View Activity
https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/resources/365/the-voyage-scale-model-solar-system/

In this activity from the Universities Space Research Association, students design a scale model of the Solar System illustrating the physical sizes of the sun and the planets and the distances between them.

Instructional Strategies: Modeling

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 90 minutes

The Great Planetary Debate

View Activity
https://www.windows2universe.org/?page=/teacher_resources/planetary_debate_edu.html

In this activity, from Windows to the Universe, learners work cooperatively to conduct research, mount a debate, and practice communication and listening skills. This activity requires that students use computers for web-based research on planetary bodies.

Instructional Strategies: Debate

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 300 minutes (research can be assigned as out of class work)

Jorge Salazar interview with Carol Raymond on Asteroid Vesta (2012)

View Activity
http://earthsky.org/space/carol-raymond-reveals-asteroid-vesta

In this interview with Carol Raymond, Deputy Principal Investigator of NASA's Dawn mission to orbit the massive asteroid Vesta, students learn about the first ever orbit of an asteroid.

Instructional Strategies: Reading

Resource Type: Interview with an expert

Time Required: 2 minutes

Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud

View Activity
http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/

NASA's Solar System Exploration website gives an overview of general information on the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.

Instructional Strategies: Reading

Resource Type: News or popular magazine article

Time Required: 30 minutes

Teaching tools: Comets and Asteroids

View Activity
http://amazing-space.stsci.edu/eds/tools/topic/comets.php.

This "Amazing Space" website from the Formal Education Group of the Space Telescope Science Institute's Office of Public Outreach contains a variety of online resources, explorations, and information on facts, myths, and legends regarding comets and asteroids.

Instructional Strategies: Modeling

Resource Type: Visualization (static visualization, animation, simulation)

Time Required: 30 minutes

Asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects -- Resonance

View Activity
http://astro.unl.edu/vlabs/

In VLab 9, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, learners investigate the role of orbital resonance in differentiating the structure of the solar system.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 45 minutes

Origin of the Earth and Moon

View Activity
http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/scitech/display.cfm?ST_ID=446

This article from NASA's "Solar System Exploration" site contains information discussing the theories for the formation of Earth's moon and the Solar System's planets.

Instructional Strategies: Reading

Resource Type: Scholarly article

Time Required: 30 minutes

NASA Moon Impact Crater Lab

View Activity
http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/180572main_ETM.Impact.Craters.pdf

In this lab students study the different features of an impact crater and test the different variables that influence a crater's size. They also construct explanations for their findings. This lab requires that teachers review the origin of craters and volcanoes on planetary bodies, including Earth.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry, Modeling

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 90 minutes

NASA Earthrise: The 45th Annniversary

View Activity
https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/details.cgi?aid=4129

This short video is a wonderful reconstruction of how the classic photo of Earth rising above the moon was captured by Apollo 8. It is a testament to the emotional power of seeing the Earth as one world, our home, in Astronaut Jim Lovell's words, "a grand oasis in the vastness of space."

Instructional Strategies: Lecture

Resource Type: Video

Time Required: 7 minutes

Field Trips

Studies that examine how geologists think and learn about the Earth point to the value of field experiences in helping students develop practices that constitute geologic reasoning. We encourage teachers to take students into the field as much as possible. The former recognizes the limitations of the K-12 classroom setting. Field learning provides a chance to encourage the ability to see features that are important to professional practice. Therefore, we include ideas for virtual and actual field trips. In the case of space exploration, teachers may be able to organize visits to a local science center, museum, college or university with planetarium and/or observatory facilities. Teachers can check with their own school district to see if they have access to a travelling planetarium.

Virtual Field Trips

NASA Small-Body Database browser

This Java applet generates an interactive diagram of the orbit of an asteroid or comet of the user's choice. Enter the formal name of the asteroid or comet (e.g. "1 Ceres" or 1P/Halley.)

Actual Field Trips

The University of Texas McDonald Observatory offers educational twilight programs and daily tours of its research telescopes.

Space Center Houston offers a variety of education programs and hosts school visits.

Scaffolding Notes

Teachers must develop their own individual plan for how they will teach the unit.The learning activities and educational resources in this unit are intended to complement other instructional activities led by the teacher. Many of the selected learning experiences provide links to excellent background preparatory materials, additional hands-on resources, teaching tips, and cross-curricular connections.

Teachers will need to create their own multimedia presentations, deliver lectures and assign ancillary work to their students in order to set the stage for effective use of the learning activities contained herein. Therefore, it is imperative to allocate time to review the activities and background material prior to using the learning experiences in this unit and to probe students for their prior knowledge before starting an activity.

In addition, although some activities may incorporate assessments, teachers may need to create their own assessments to ensure that are appropriate for the students they teach.

Asterisks (*) indicate teacher resource and background information recommendations for activity support.

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In Solar System Evolution–Time Lineup, students ages 12–17 work in groups or as a class to determine the order of the events that formed our solar system. This is an excellent activity to begin a discussion of these events and of the interrelated changes that have occurred within Earth's geosphere and biosphere through time.

The activity How Planets Form can be implemented in several different ways, such as using a jigsaw approach or learning stations.

Modeling Planetary Interiors and Differentiation has students work together as teams to create working models of the interiors of the terrestrial planets and the Moon using various materials. Teachers will need to gather materials prior to beginning the activity, including solid materials that are insoluble and of different densities as well as light-colored, non-toxic liquids of different densities.

For The Voyage Scale Model Solar System, it is recommended that teachers have scale models on hand to help explain the concept of calculating ratios in such models.

The Planetary Bodies of Our Solar System Debate requires that students use computers for web-based research on planetary bodies.

The Jorge Salazar interview with Carol Raymond on Asteroid Vesta is a 90-second podcast about the 2012 NASA mission to visit the asteroid Vesta. Instructors may wish to use guided questioning to review the origin of the solar system, introduce asteroids and the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and consider and discuss the hazard posed by near-Earth asteroids. The page contains a link that shows a red-blue 3-D fly-by tour of the surface features of Vesta.

NASA's Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud: Overview gives an overview of general information about these celestial regions. It may be assigned as a homework reading with teacher created-questions assigned. Teachers should lead a discussion to students' answers to these questions the following class period. The activity can also be used in class as a jigsaw or reading activity.

The Teaching Tools: Comets and Asteroids resource time is estimated at 20-30 minutes. It can be used as a reinforcing resource, an introductory lecture or to inform a teacher-directed classroom discussion.

*Orbital resonance is a property of the solar system that differentiates the planets, asteroid belt and Kuiper belt into distinct regions. The following activity demonstrates this property.

In Asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects – Resonance, students input values for radial distance from the Sun - the semi-major axis - and the object's eccentricity to view the orbital relationship between it and Neptune, demonstrating that at certain distances several types of orbital resonance take place.

Origins of the Earth and Moon is an article containing information about the Big Impact theory regarding the creation of the Moon, the formation of the planets through accumulation in our solar system, and the calculated length of time it took for the planets to accrete.

The NASA Moon Impact Crater Lab requires that teachers review the origin of craters and volcanoes on planetary bodies, including Earth. Impact craters on planetary bodies resemble volcanic craters/calderas. This lab requires significant teacher prep, so be sure to read the teacher guide ahead of time, allowing plenty of time to gather necessary materials.

Next Generation Science Standards

We anticipate that students should be able to achieve the NGSS Performance Expectation(s) listed after completing the activities in this unit. However, we have not carried out educational research to verify this.

MS-ESS1-1. Develop and use a model of the Earth-sun-moon system to describe the cyclic patterns of lunar phases, eclipses of the sun and moon, and seasons.

MS-ESS1-2. Develop and use a model to describe the role of gravity in the motions within galaxies and the solar system.

MS-ESS1-3. Analyze and interpret data to determine scale properties of objects in the solar system.

MS-ESS1-4. Construct a scientific explanation based on evidence from rock strata for how the geologic time scale is used to organize Earth's 4.6-billion-year-old history.

HS-ESS1-4. Use mathematical or computational representations to predict the motion of orbiting objects in the solar system.

These Performance Expectations integrate the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Cross Cutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices of the NGSS as shown in the unit table The Solar System (Acrobat (PDF) 77kB Jul28 15).

Additional Resources

The recommended additional resources may be used to extend or augment the storyline.

How the Moon Evolved

From epic asteroid bombardment and lava flow to man landing on its surface, the Moon has a rich and violent history.

Planet Families: Build a Solar System

Students select a solar system to work with and then drag planets into the solar system and watch how it evolves.

10 Moon facts

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