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Formation of the Solar System: Birth of Worlds

Color illustration of gas giant and moons orbiting star.
An artist's conception of a very young planetary system. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As part of the human drive to understand our origins, we have a natural desire to learn about Earth's formation. Engage your students on this topic through the activities and events listed here.

This topic is advanced for many students. Students will need to have a solid conception of the components of the solar system, their positions in the solar system and they will need to understand the difference between our solar system, our galaxy and our Universe.

Much of our information about the origins of the solar system is dependent on missions studying the composition of objects like comets and the Sun; for more activities on comets go to Small Bodies, Big Impacts, and for more activities on the composition of the planets go to A Family Affair.

Begin with the Explore the Celestial Your Neighborhood! activity, and be sure to submit photographs, artwork, music, or words of students enjoying this activity to Share Your Stories.


Grades K-4
For these grades, the details of the solar system's formation are beyond their current knowledge and experiences. These students are being taught about Earth's rotation. Earth spins like a top, causing day and night. Many students may want to know what force made these "tops" begin to spin. This motion is from their formation and the formation of the solar system. These activities may help:

Activities Description
Spinning Does More than Make You Dizzy Students investigate why the planets revolve around the Sun in the same direction and connect their formation to their motions in this simple demonstration.
New Horizons: Orbit and Spin In this kinesthetic activity, students explore the size, distance, orbit, and spin of the Sun, Moon and Earth.

Grades 5-8
Be prepared to address some misconceptions in this age group; students may have the solar system confused with the galaxy or the Universe, and they may confuse the solar system's formation with the Big Bang.

After ensuring that your students have a detailed understanding of the components and scale of the solar system, you may want to conduct some activities related to its formation.

Activities Description
What Are We Made Of? The Sun, the Earth, and You
Teacher Guide
Student Activity
Students learn that elements are the basic building blocks of all things found on Earth and in space including water, the human body, the Earth, the Sun, and the planets. By counting elements extracted from a simulated sample, students explore how the extraction of atoms from the Genesis samples help scientists have a better understanding of the abundances of elements from the solar wind. This hands-on experience helps students discover that the elemental abundances from the Sun can be used as a baseline to compare with the diverse bodies of our solar system.
Exploring Meteorite Mysteries: Lesson 10-Building Blocks of Planets In "Activity A" students will observe and describe chondrite meteorites. In "Activity B" they will experiment with balloons and static electricity to illustrate the theories about how dust particles collected into larger clusters. In "Activity C" students will manipulate magnetic marbles and steel balls to dramatically illustrate the accretion of chondritic material into larger bodies like planets and asteroids.
Changes Inside Planets (Differentiation and Breakup) Students conduct experiments to model the separation of light and heavy materials within a planetary body using gelatin. In a second activity, students model the break-up of a differentiated body using frozen hard-boiled eggs.
Active Accretion (PDF, 1.49 MB) Students act as dust grains that come together to model early planet formation by the process of accretion in our solar system.

Grades 9-14
These grades should be developing an understanding of both the composition and scale of the solar system, as well as a familiarity with the physical processes that shaped the solar system: gravity, friction, angular momentum, etc. They may also be interested in applying their understanding of the life cycles of stars (and supernova explosions) to the materials that made up the solar nebula and the forces that caused the solar nebula to collapse. Science Education Standards

Activities Description
Cosmic Chemistry: Planetary Diversity The goal of this module is to acquaint students with the planets of the solar system and some current models for their origin and evolution. During the explorations of the "Cosmic Chemistry: Planetary Diversity" module, students will make decisions concerning possible patterns or groupings of the physical and chemical compositions of internal structures and atmospheres of planets. Through classroom activities, they will be encouraged to examine some contemporary models proposed to explain the origin and evolution of the planets. In the final assessment activity students will use these experiences to predict the properties of the "the missing planet" that could have formed in the asteroid belt.
Gravitation 3.8 An interactive gravity modeler that can simulate a solar system, and allows you to drag the planets into new parameters; this can be used to observe gravitational interaction.
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Last Updated: 12 Sep 2014