Use these free STEM lessons and activities to help students get hands-on exploring and learning about solar system science.
The Earth, the Moon, the Sun, and space are concepts students identify early on. The names of the planets quickly follow, along with stars and the reality that the Sun, too, is a star and is the closest star to Earth. Students learn that the Earth is one of eight planets in our solar system, a group of planets that circle the Sun at a set pace and in a predictable elliptical pattern. How do you move beyond these basic concepts in teaching students about the solar system?
Despite early awareness of basic astronomy, science related to astronomy, the solar system, and even space beyond, can be difficult for students to comprehend because the scale is so large. Using models and hands-on systems helps students visualize and engage with questions about space and our solar system and brings to life an understanding of Earth as a single planet positioned in a solar system with other planets—and that our solar system is just one such system in the universe. As students model and explore our solar system, they build the framework on which they will expand their understanding of galaxies, our own and others, distances in space, the age of our solar system, the life cycle of stars, the composition of planets, and more.
The free STEM lessons and activities below are designed to help educators teach students about the solar system, including the order, size, position, and distances from the Sun of the planets. In learning about the solar system, students explore gravity; differences in the size, mass, and composition of planets and asteroids; orbits and how natural and manmade satellites work; and more.
The resources below have been grouped as follows:
Note: Science Buddies Lesson Plans contain materials to support educators leading hands-on STEM learning with students. Lesson Plans offer NGSS alignment, contain background materials to boost teacher confidence, even in areas that may be new to them, and include supplemental resources like worksheets, videos, discussion questions, and assessment materials. Activities are simplified explorations that can be used in the classroom or in informal learning environments. Student projects that appear below contain experiments that can be effectively adapted for use by educators for teaching about the topic.
Lesson Plans and Activities to Teach About the Solar System
Modeling the Planets in Our Solar System
Students learn early on the names of the planets (and maybe even a fun mnemonic device to help remember their order). But understanding the sizes of the planets and their distances from one another really helps bring understanding of our solar system into shape. The Make a Model of the Solar System lesson guides students in building a scale model of the solar system that represents the size of each planet as well as their distances from one another. Questions: Why are the planets spherical in shape? How big is the Sun in relation to the largest planets in the solar system? In the scale model, what object might be used for the Sun? (Note: Short, separate activities are also available: Model the Distances between Planets in our Solar System) and How Big Are the Planets in Our Solar System?). The Worlds in Comparison lesson can also be used to create a model of the solar system.
With the Pocket Solar System lesson, students use a single strip of paper to make a simple model of the solar system to visualize how much space exists between the planets. They’ll be practicing fractions as they fold their model solar system, too! Questions: After making the fold-up model and looking at the planets all stretched out in a line to model the distances planets are from one another, what observations can you make about the planets that are closest to the Sun compared to the ones farther away? What is a dwarf planet? What is the largest dwarf planet in our solar system, and how far away is it from the Sun? What is an astronomical unit (AU)?
Earth’s Rotation and Orbit
With the Kinesthetic Astronomy: Earth’s Rotation lesson, students use kinesthetic techniques to better understand how the Earth moves, what the Earth’s rotation means, and how the Earth’s rotation on its axis differs from the Earth’s orbit. In the activity, students use their bodies and movements to help them understand concepts (like which direction the Earth rotates and when sunset and sunrise occur) and locations (like where the equator is). Questions: Why do people in different locations, looking at the sky at the same time, see different things? What does the Earth’s rotation have to do with days and nights on Earth?
“Blue Marble” © 2002 NASA Earth Observatory
With the Kinesthetic Astronomy: Longer Days, Shorter Nights lesson, students use a kinesthetic activity to better understand how the tilt of the Earth relates to changing patterns of light and the change in seasons. This lesson addresses common misconceptions about the relationship between the seasons and the Earth’s position in relation to the Sun. Questions: At what time of the year is Earth closest to the Sun? How is the angle of the Sun’s rays that reach the Earth related to the season?
“Diagram of the Earth’s seasons as seen from the south” © 2006 Tau’olunga
With the Kinesthetic Astronomy: The Meaning of a Year lesson, students use a kinesthetic activity to model the difference between Earth’s daily rotation and year-long orbit around the Sun. Questions: What is the difference between an orbit and a rotation? Which direction does the Earth orbit the Sun? How long does a single orbit of the Earth around the Sun take?
“Earth’s Orbit” © 2015 NASA/JPL-CalTech
Gravity in Our Solar System
How does a spacecraft (or a planet) stay in orbit? Gravity is a key factor, but it isn’t the only one! In the The Great Gravity Escape lesson, students explore the role of gravity and velocity in a spacecraft’s orbit. In the hands-on activity, students spin water balloons attached to a length of string to investigate how the gravitational forces between two objects and the velocity of a traveling object balance to form an orbit. Questions: What happens if the velocity increases too much? What is escape velocity? Why is understanding escape velocity important for engineers developing spacecraft? How are the orbits of planets similar or different from the orbits of a spacecraft?
With the Modeling Gravity lesson, students get hands-on with a large sheet, a billiard ball, and marbles to investigate how gravity works on Earth and in the solar system. With the Sun represented by the billiard ball and marbles representing the planets, students explore how the Sun’s mass and gravitational force attracts objects. By experimenting with rolling the marbles from the edges of the model, students will see how sideways motion of the planets helps keep them in orbit around the Sun, rather than just being pulled to the Sun. Questions: Why do the planets in our solar system orbit the sun instead of flying off into space? What shape is the orbit of planets in our solar system? What does mass have to do with gravitational force? Why do moons orbit planets and not the Sun?
With the Slingshot to the Outer Planets lesson, students investigate how a gravity assist or “slingshot” maneuver can be used to help spacecraft reach distant planets. Students use magnets and ball bearings to simulate a planetary flyby and explore factors related to a successful slingshot maneuver. Questions: Why does it require so much energy for a spacecraft to reach the outer planets? What problem does a gravity assist maneuver help solve when thinking about interplanetary space travel? What is the deflection angle of a gravity assist maneuver?
Meteoroids & Asteroids
Some of the craters on planets and moons in the solar system are caused by meteorites that have crashed into the surface. In the Creating Craters activity, students make their own impact craters in a container of flour and investigate the relationship between the size and depth of an impact crater and the meteorite that caused it. For another exploration of crater formation, see the The Measure of Mercury: Analyzing Impact Craters on the Innermost Planet project. Remember! It is called a meteoroid while still in space, but a meteorite once it hits the surface. Questions: What are two variables that contribute to the size of an impact crater? How does the atmosphere on Earth change what happens to an impact crater over time? Why do not all meteoroids that enter Earth’s atmosphere reach the surface?
There are millions of asteroids in space. These chunks of rock are remnants left over from the formation of the solar system, and scientists track and study asteroids for clues about the history of our solar system. The NASA Asteroid Database: What Can You Learn About Our Solar System? project guides students in using an asteroid database maintained by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to learn more about specific asteroids and their properties. Extend it! Asteroids may be useful for mining raw materials in space. Students can explore this possibility in the Asteroid Mining: Gold Rush in Space? project. Questions: What is the difference between a comet and an asteroid? Do asteroids orbit the Sun? What is an eccentric orbit? Where are most of the asteroids in our solar system located?
11. Saturn’s Rings
Saturn’s rings make it unique among the planets in the solar system. In the What Makes the Rings of Saturn? project, students learn more about these rings and investigate how the composition of the rings contributes to how they look. Questions: What are the rings of Saturn made of? Why do they look like rings?
What does it mean when scientists talk about Mars being in retrograde? The Kinesthetic Astronomy: Mars Opposition Dance lesson helps students model the orbital speeds of Earth and Mars and learn what opposition, conjunction, and retrograde mean in astronomy. Questions: How often is Mars in retrograde? How does the orbital speed of other planets compare to that of Earth?
“The Plane of the Ecliptic” © 2017 NASA
13. Getting to Mars
With the A Roundabout Way to Mars lesson, students use cardboard and string to learn about the orbits of Earth and Mars and explore the concept of orbit transfers, specifically, Hohmann transfers. Questions: How are Hohmann transfers different from other kinds of orbit transfers? What is a delta-v maneuver?
14. Mars Elevator
Getting to Mars or to some other space destination takes a long time. Could some kind of space elevator work to make traveling between Earth and Mars faster? With the Space Elevator Problem Set activity, students investigate the idea of a space elevator by working through a math-based problem set. The activity requires understanding of Newton’s laws of motion, Newton’s law of universal gravitation, and algebra. Questions: What kind of material would be required for a space elevator cable? How do the requirements of a space elevator change depending on what celestial body is used as the anchor?
Note: For additional lessons and activities about Mars and exploration of Mars, see the Mars Rover Landing: Space Science & Mars STEM Lessons and Activities resource collection.
The following word bank contains words that may be covered when teaching about the solar system using the lessons and activities in this resource.
- Asteroid belt
- Astronomical unit (AU)
- Escape velocity
- Dwarf planet
- Gravitational force
- Hohmann transfer
- Impact crater
- International Space Station
- Light speed
- Light year
- Milky Way
- Newton’s law of universal gravitation
- Orbital period
- Orbital transfer
- Solar system
- Space elevator
- Space exploration
- Terrestrial planet
Collections like this help educators find themed activities in a specific subject area or discover activities and lessons that meet a curriculum need. We hope these collections make it convenient for teachers to browse related lessons and activities. For other collections, see the Teaching Science Units and Thematic Collections lists. We encourage you to browse the complete STEM Activities for Kids and Lesson Plans areas, too. Filters are available to help you narrow your search.
Development of this resource to support educators teaching K-12 STEM curriculum topics was made possible by generous support from the Donaldson Foundation.
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