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Our solar system is truly enormous. Developing a sense of just how enormous is difficult, however. A good starting point to this understanding is to have children explore the relative distances across our solar system, and this game provides a fun way to do that. This is also a great activity for learning about the major bodies in our solar system, and to practice measuring and estimating.
You will need a room at least 40 feet long for this game, and ideally 9-10 children. This activity is scalable – you could do it outside at a distance of 40 meters or yards instead, or at any measurement, really – you’ll just need to recalculate the measurements included in these instructions.
Print the planet images or create the name cards for each planet mentioned under “Suggested Materials” (see list of planets under “Make it Matter”). Tape the image of the Sun (or the printed word “Sun”) on one wall of the room you are in. If you are outside, tape to any appropriate object, or even place on the ground. Place the photo of Pluto 40 feet away (or farther, if you are changing the scale), on the ground or taped to a wall. Create a 40’ measuring line on the floor with masking tape or string, and mark 1-foot lines along its length, starting at Pluto and ending at the Sun. This will make measurement during the activity much easier for you.
NOTE: For an indoor, and smaller-scale (though slightly more involved) version of this activity, try the Astro Map activity from this curriculum (click here).
Ask your students to name any planets in our solar system they can. Write down their list on chart paper or a dry erase board, and add anything they missed (use the list below for reference), including Ceres, the largest dwarf planet in the Asteroid Belt, and Pluto, also a dwarf planet:
Can they place these objects in order? Help them create a list in the correct order (above), and write this list down in a visible spot. How far apart do they think these objects might be? 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: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets.
Play this game by predicting how far apart the major objects in our solar system are!
|Object||Distance from Pluto in the 40’ Scale Model||Actual Distance from Sun
(in Astronomical Units, or AU)
And see Figure 1 in Resources, above, for an overhead view of the distances.
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: Traveling from Earth to Mars at 60 mph would take 92 years (it’s 48,500,000 miles)!
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 wide-open and empty.
If you’d like to continue on past our solar system, you can ask your students to predict how far away, in the 40-foot model you created, the next closest star would be to our solar system (our closest star is, of course, the Sun). The closest star outside our solar system is called Proxima Centauri, and it is about 4.2 light years away – that’s almost 25 TRILLION miles. This is a distance that’s pretty much impossible to imagine. At 60 miles per hour, it would take over 47 million years to drive there. And in our 40-foot solar system model, Proxima Centauri would be 271,000 feet, or 51 miles away. Look on a map at how far 51 miles is from where you are.
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).