Investigating dimensions of the solar system

This page authored by Leslie Kanat, Johnson State College; Francisco San Juan, Elizabeth City State University; Steven Schafersman, CyberComputing Scientific Services; Michael Stewart, University of Illinois—Urbana Champaign


Students use planetary mass and radius to calculate density and compare these quantities to orbital radius in order to assess trends and patters in the solar system. Excel is used to graphically compare the data (mass, and radius) and the calculation results (density) orbital distance. The results are used to investigate and evaluate the Nebular Hypothesis.

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Learning Goals

This exercise introduces students to the use of Excel and requires the application of basic arithmetic to generate results. Students compare and discriminate planetary data and synthesis these data and their results to evaluate the nebular hypothesis. Basic skills strengthened in this lab include writing, calculation and graphing in Excel, and incorporating graphics into word processing text.

Context for Use

This activity is appropriate for introductory level Earth and planetary science classes of any size. One hour of contact time is required to instruct students in the use of excel (making graphs and entering formulas) and importing graphics into Word. Approximately two hours outside of lab are required for students to perform the calculations, create the graphs, evaluate the results and compose the lab. Access to computers is required.

Description and Teaching Materials

Class/lab time is used to introduce students to excel (entering data, and simple calculations). Then students visit the websites (in resources below) to gather the data and input them into an Excel spreadsheet to perform the calculations and create the graphs. Students then evaluate their results in light of the Nebular Hypothesis.


A student handout (Microsoft Word 98kB Nov17 06) with introductory information and questions for the students.

A solution worksheet (Excel 29kB Nov17 06) with all the calculations keyed out.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The class should have already read and discussed the Nebular Hypothesis, and have some background reading on the solar system—planet properties such as size, mass, composition and orbital distance from the sun. Students should also visit the web reading on how to use Excel (resources) to input data and graph data.

Instructor must be sure that students apply the concepts of mass, size, and volume, especially in the calculations of density.


Student Assessment is based on the following grading rubric:

  • Incorporation of three distinct, appropriate, and properly labeled graphs (10 points)
  • Use of technology to incorporate Excel graphs into the Word document (20 points)
  • Interpretation of the results with respect to the validity of the Nebular Hypothesis (10 points)
  • Description of trends in the solar system (size, mass, and density) (25 points)
  • Proper calculations (15 points)
  • Title page and thesis statement (5 points)
  • Writing style (15 points)
  • 100 points total

References and Resources