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McREL Standards Activity

Driving through the Solar System

Purpose:As a result of this activity, students will be able to understand the relative distances between objects in the solar system.
Related Standard & Benchmarks:
 Standard 4.Understands and applies basic and advanced properties of the concepts of measurement
   Level III [Grade 6-8]
   Benchmark 4. Solves problems involving units of measurement and converts answers to a larger or smaller unit within the same system (i.e., standard or metric)
 Standard 3.Understands the composition and structure of the universe and the Earth's place in it
   Level III [Grade 6-8]
   Benchmark 1. Knows characteristics and movement patterns of the planets in our Solar System (e.g., planets differ in size, composition, and surface features; planets move around the Sun in elliptical orbits; some planets have moons, rings of particles, and other satellites orbiting them)
Student Product:Results of calculations
Material & Resources:Planetary data from a textbook, almanac, or website. Scientific calculator
Teacher's Note:This activity presupposes that students understand unit conversion
Individually or in groups, students will calculate the amount of time it would take to travel within the solar system if they were travelling at the speed of an automobile (i.e., 75 mph or other selected speed). For more intelligible comparisons, time periods should be converted to days or years. To give students a sense of scale, they should first determine how long it would take to drive around the earth (expressed in days). With this as a reference, students should then calculate the traveling times for other hypothetical trips through the solar system, such as: Earth to the Moon (in days) Earth to Mars (in years) Earth to the Sun (in years) Sun to Pluto (in years) For each destination students should decide whether to calculate the travel time when the objects are closest together (perihelion or perigee), farthest apart (aphelion or apogee), or find the average distance. Finally, students should be aware that the distances from the earth to objects outside the solar system are usually expressed in terms of a light year. Students should calculate the number of years it would take to drive one light year. Teachers may wish to utilize extension activities: a) Students could compare their driving times to actual space exploration travel time (e.g., Moon landings, Planetary space probes). They also could report on means of propulsion and limitations on speed associated with space exploration. b) Students can compare the distances and drive times between objects when they are closest and when they are farthest apart. c)Have students develop "road maps" of the solar system, showing distances and describing planetary characteristics along the way (Mercury is a great place for a tan, but it’s a little hot and the days and nights are really short, etc.) as well as obstacles (Asteroid belt here! Four-wheel drive recommended...).