Astro Map

Math NASA Science
Time 20 – 45 minutes
Age 7 and up
Group Size Any
Tags Estimating, Math, Measurement,   more...
NASA Planets Science Solar System

How far away is Pluto?

Our solar system is truly enormous. Developing a sense of just how enormous is difficult for almost anyone, let alone children. A good starting point to understanding how vast the universe is, is to have children explore the relative distances across our solar system, and this activity provides a fun first step in that understanding. This is also a great activity for learning about the major bodies in our solar system, and to practice measuring, estimation and fractions.


Cut strips of the adding machine tape or toilet paper to lengths of about 3 feet/1 meter. The strips should be no taller than your shortest student. NOTE: For a simpler version of this activity, which requires more physical space, but fewer materials, try the team-based Solar System Showcase activity from this curriculum. This game is also a good alternative for younger students.

Astro Map

Suggested Materials

  • 1 roll of adding machine tape, or 1 roll of toilet paper (really)
  • Pens or pencils

Make it Matter

Opening Discussion:

Ask your students if they can name objects in our solar system. Keep a running list. Can they place them in order? How far apart do they think these objects might be? List out the major objects in our solar system, in order, on a piece of chart paper or chalkboard:

If you can, show your students the NASA images of some of these objects included with this curriculum. You can print them out or show them the images on a computer. You can also visit NASA’s amazing solar system website, which is full of images, information and more:

The Challenge:

Make a map of the solar system that you can keep!


Make it Happen

This is a highly staff-directed activity, so you will lead each child through the steps. Distribute a strip of paper and a pen or pencil to each child, and walk them through these steps to create their solar system map:

  1. Label one end of your map “Sun” and the other “Pluto”.
  2. Fold the strip in half, press down on the fold so it leaves a line (known as creasing the fold), and open it up again. Ask your students to refer to your solar system list that you shared earlier, and guess which object from the solar system goes on this middle crease. The answer, surprisingly, is Uranus. Have them write “Uranus” in small letters near the fold.
  3. Fold the strip in half again, where the existing fold is. Then fold it in half again and crease it there. Unfold it – you should have three creases making four sections. You have gone from dividing the strip in half to dividing it in quarters.
  4. Ask your students which planets they think might go on these new folds. The crease between Uranus and Pluto is Neptune – have your students label it. The object at the crease between Uranus and the Sun is Saturn.
  5. You may notice that ¾ of the solar system is taken up by the space between only Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and the dwarf planet Pluto. That’s a lot of distance for so few planets! Your students will still need to fit 5 planets and the Asteroid Belt in that last ¼ of their strip of paper.
  6. Next step – fold the Sun up to Saturn and press down on the fold, then unfold it. Any guesses what goes at this mark? This is where Jupiter lives – write Jupiter at this 1/8th line.
  7. Fold the Sun to Jupiter and crease it. Label this as the Asteroid Belt.
  8. Fold the Sun to the Asteroid Belt, crease it, unfold, and label that line between the Sun and the Asteroid Belt as Mars.
  9. Three more planets to go, and not a lot of room to do it! Fold the Sun up to Mars, but leave it folded. Fold that section in half again and press down on the folds. Unfold and you should have three fold lines left behind. Label the line closest to Mars as Earth, the middle line Venus and the line closest to the Sun as Mercury. You may have to write in small letters! Look – you have completed your map! It should look like this:


Make it Click

Let’s Talk About It:

Ask your students if they were surprised by the results. It is worth reinforcing the vast distances between objects in our solar system – while it may look like they are close together, based on this activity, our solar system is a truly enormous place. Ask your students how long they think it might take to drive in a car, at 60 miles per hour, from Earth to Mars (using the average distance between the two). Write everyone’s guesses down on a piece of chart paper, dry erase board, etc. Did anyone come close? Reveal the answer (below), along with travel times to the Sun and the Moon:

Keep in mind this is non-stop travel. No bathroom breaks! Ask students to share the longest road trips they have ever taken. Can they imagine extending those trips to 92 years, or even almost 6 months? How long do they think it would take to travel in a car (or spaceship), at 60 mph, to the other major pit stops in our solar system? You can figure this out by dividing the distance between Earth and any object by 525,600 (the number of minutes in a year, since 60 mph = 1 mile per minute). If you are working with older children, you can give them this challenge – either share with them the average mileage listed below, or even have them research those distances on line. Then, have them calculate travel time by dividing the distance by 525,600. With younger children, you can have them guess travel times (now that they have some context with the three times above). Here are some distances from Earth (rounded) and 60 mph travel times:

What do they think is in all that space between the planets/other objects (hint – we call it “space” for a reason…)? There is not a lot out there in space. The majority of the universe is a vast emptiness.


Make it Better

Build on What They Talked About:

If your students would like to, they can try to make another map of their solar system. They can also decorate their maps with drawings of the planets, based on the images you show them. You could have them include other objects, like Ceres (dwarf planet in the Asteroid Belt), and the Kuiper Belt, where Pluto, Eris and other distant objects are found.

You could also have a follow up discussion about how long it has taken NASA spacecraft to reach some of the objects in our solar system. List the objects, and have students predict how long it took NASA to get there:

ApolloMoon3 daysSlowed down prior to orbit
MagellanVenus15 monthsSlowed down prior to obrit
PhoenixMars11 monthsSlowed down prior to orbit
DawnVesta (in the Asteroid Belt)4 yearsMars flyby gravity assist; efficient fuel source
GalileoJupiter6 yearsTwo Earth flyby gravity assists
MessengerMercury6.5 yearsEarth flyby gravity assist; two Venus flyby gravity assists; three Mercury flybys
CassiniSaturn7 yearsJupiter flyby gravity assist
Voyager 1 & 2Jupiter; Saturn; Uranus; Neptune13,23 months; 3,4 years; 8.5 years; 12 yearsVoyager 1 fast orbit to Jupiter & Saturn
Both Voyager 1 & 2 are now far out of the solar system
Voyager 2 is ~ 90 AU from the Sun
Voyager 1 is ~110 AU from the Sun
New HorizonsPluto9.5 yearsJupiter flyby gravity assist


  • For a team-based game similar to this activity, and even as a follow up (without all of the paper folding), try the Solar System Showcase activity from this curriculum.
  • Make similar relative distance maps of cities in the U.S., countries, streets in your town, etc.
  • This activity is based on Pocket Solar System, from Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s “Astronomy from the Ground Up”. You can check it out here, and visit their website for more great resources at


Earth and Space science activities were developed with the support of NASA. This material is based upon work supported by NASA under grant award number NNX14AQ83G. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

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