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6-8 > Astronomy/Space
Grade level: 6-8 Subject: Astronomy/Space Duration: Two class periods
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Universe 2001: Planets

Students will understand the following:
1. The characteristics of the planets and moons in the solar system
2. How astronomers study planets and moons
3. The difference between a scientific theory and a scientific fact

For this lesson, you will need:
pens, pencils, and markers
large sheets of paper
paints, glue, and tape
books and magazines
encyclopedias with articles about space and planets
computer with Internet access

1. Explain to students that they will create profiles of the nine planets in the solar system. Each group in the class will present a written and oral report about a planet. Presentations should include photos, illustrations, and any other multimedia materials that groups wish to present. Student groups should create materials that can be part of a class solar system display.
2. Have the class brainstorm information to be included in the planetary profiles. Suggested topic questions include the following:
  • How large is the planet? (What is its equatorial diameter?)
  • What is its atmosphere like?
  • What are some of its geological traits?
  • How many moons does the planet have?
  • How long is the planet’s “day”? How long is its “year”?
  • What is the surface gravity like on the planet?
  • How did scientists learn about the planet?
  • Who first discovered the planet? When?
  • Over the course of history, how and why have scientific theories about the planet changed? For instance, how and when did the theory that the Earth is round become a fact?
  • What are the chances that life exists—or may have existed—on this planet?
3. As a class, choose the top ten questions to be answered in the planet profile. List these questions on the board.
4. Divide the class into nine groups. Write the name of each planet on a slip of paper and place the slips into a hat. Have each group pick a slip of paper with their assigned planet.
5. Collect encyclopedias and a variety of books and magazine articles about the planets. If possible, purchase a copy of "Planets 2001: Beyond the Millennium" for student viewing. If you have Internet access for your students, you might also want to bookmark the planet-related Internet sites listed below.
6. Encourage groups to research and gather data about their planet. Remind them to address the ten questions selected by the class.
7. Suggest that students plan how they will present their planetary information. Presentations may be in the form of a written report with illustrations, a three-dimensional model, or a bulletin board display.
8. Allow class time for each group to present its planet’s profile. Include a class discussion period for students to ask any questions they still have. This may prompt further exploration and research.
9. Display the planet profiles for other classes to view.
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Adaptation for older students:
Instead of a written report, encourage students to create multimedia presentations about their planets. Invite student groups to present their information in one of a variety of forms, such as a computer-generated slide show, a video documentary, a magazine article, or a Web site.
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Discussion Questions

1. Describe the nine planets in the solar system. Compare and contrast the other planets with Earth. How are the four inner planets different from the five outer planets?
2. Explain the various technologies that astronomers use to study the planets and their moons.
3. Compare the use of robots and space probes for space exploration with astronaut travel. Discuss the advantages and limitations of each. Which do you think is the best way to explore the solar system?
4. Discuss how the analysis of extreme conditions on Earth can help scientists understand the conditions on other planets.
5. Discuss what makes a theory a theory. How does a theory become a fact? What are some past theories about the solar system that have proven to be false?
6. How do you think scientists will explore the planets in the future?
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You can evaluate your students on the completion of their planetary profiles using the following three-point rubric:
  • Three points:Reports and presentations fully answer the class’s top ten topic questions in an interesting and creative way. There is full group participation during the presentations.
  • Two points:Reports answer the top ten topic questions but the reports are not presented creatively. The whole group participates in the presentation.
  • One point:Reports do not answer the top ten questions and the group does not fully participate in the presentation.
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Universal Time Line
Invite students to devise an illustrated and informative time line that presents major cosmic events. Suggest that students begin the time line with the big bang and end with the first appearance of dinosaurs on Earth. Encourage students to include important events such as the creation of galaxies, the formation of our sun and solar system, and the beginning of life on Earth.

One Giant Leap
Have students research newspaper and magazine archives for articles about the first Apollo lunar landing and moon walk. Challenge them to reenact this exciting world event through either a video documentary, a radio play, or a front-page news article. Follow up this activity with a discussion comparing today’s space missions with the missions of nearly 40 years ago.

Earth Science Is Space Science
Point out to students that scientists apply what they know about Earth’s geology to their analysis of other planets. For instance, understanding volcanoes on Earth can help scientists understand volcanic formations on Venus. Have students create a map that shows any geological regions on Earth that match the geology of other planets or moons. Instruct students to describe these geological formations and indicate which planets have similar structures.

Life on Other Planets
Lead students in discussing that living beings require food and some form of habitat to survive. Encourage students to design a life form that would thrive on one of the other planets or moons in our solar system. Ask them to give examples of where this life form might also exist in an extreme environment on Earth.

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Suggested Readings

Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir
Linenger, Jerry M., New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000
Describes space station training, activities, and conditions that were present in a real space station environment.

Looking for Earths: The Race to find New Solar Systems
Boss, Alan, New York: John Wiley, 1998
This book written in a journal format begins April 18, 1963 and concludes January 17, 1997. It addresses the practicality and possibility of finding another earth like planet in another galaxy.

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What is the Near-Earth Rendezvous Mission? [PDF]
Find information and additional activities on this topic at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab website.

An Exploration of the Planet Mercury [PDF]
Find information and additional activities on this topic at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab website.

Welcome to the Planets
A collection of the best images from NASA's planetary exploration program.

Views of the Solar System
Pictures of the solar system.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Home Page
Space information.

Galileo K-12 Science Lesson Plans
Science lesson plans for K-12 classrooms.

The Mars Millenium Project
The Mars Millenium Project is a national science, arts and technology initiative. Access a teacher's guide, information about Mars, a "Chat & Internet" section, and conversations with scientists, astronauts, and artists. Imagining and creating a communi

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    comet
Definition:A celestial body that consists of a fuzzy-appearing head usually surrounding a bright nucleus, usually with a highly eccentric orbit, and that often, when in the part of its orbit near the sun, develops a long tail that points away from the sun.
Context:The massive gravitational pull of Jupiter drew the comet Shoemaker-Levy into a collision course with the planet.

speaker    galaxy
Definition:Any of the very large groups of stars and associated matter that are found throughout the universe.
Context:Our solar system is part of a larger group of stars known as the Milky Way galaxy.

speaker    meteorite
Definition:A meteor, which is a small particle of matter from the solar system, that reaches the surface of the Earth without being completely vaporized.
Context:A shooting star that lands on Earth is known as a meteorite.

speaker    planet
Definition:Any of the large bodies that revolve around the sun in the solar system.
Context:It takes the planet Earth 365 days to revolve around the sun.

speaker    probe
Definition:A man-made device used to send information from outer space or a celestial body to Earth.
Context:The Voyager space probe transmitted pictures of Saturn’s rings to scientists on Earth.

speaker    solar system
Definition:The sun and the group of celestial bodies that are held by its attraction and revolve around it.
Context:It is believed that Earth is the only planet in the solar system that can support life.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level:6-8
Subject area:Earth science
Understands basic features of the Earth.
Knows that Earth is the only body in our solar system that appears able to support life.

Grade level:6-8
Subject area:Earth science
Understands basic Earth processes.
Knows how landforms are created through a combination of constructive and destructive forces.

Grade level:6-8
Subject area:Earth science
Understands essential ideas about the composition and structure of the universe and the Earth’s place in it.
Knows characteristics of our sun and its position in the universe.
Benchmark:Knows characteristics and movement patterns of the nine planets in our solar system.
Benchmark:Knows that the planet Earth and our solar system appear to be somewhat unique, although similar systems might yet be discovered in the universe.
Benchmark:Knows that gravitational force keeps planets in orbit around the sun and moons in orbit around the planets.

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Audrey Carangelo, freelance curriculum developer.
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