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Solar System Exploration at 50
History Lessons

NASA is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its earliest planetary missions, and invites classrooms to examine how our ongoing solar system exploration has impacted our understanding of the planets, our technology, and our society. The class project below is designed to encourage student-driven learning that incorporates higher level synthesis of information.

Students are invited to relate the technological innovations to our evolving understanding of the solar system, and how these changes affected our society. While this project was designed for middle school students (grades 5-8), it can still be modified and used for younger and older students, and for informal education settings. As a mechanism for preparing your students for one of these projects, we recommend that you start with the Extreme Exploration-Solar System Exploration Mission Timeline Activity. So how has 50 years of space exploration affected us? After conducting the Solar System Exploration Mission Timeline activity, guide your students through the activity below.

Graphic says "Solar System Evolution" and features an illustration of a forming solar system.

Students will participate in a project, "Dancing Among the Stars," in which they present a variety of information about their "contestant" (a solar system object) and how our understanding of it has changed over time. They will share their information and correlate the different timelines as a class to find relationships between technology, society, and knowledge. At the end, they will vote on which pairs of contestants' "dances" win.

Illustration of Mars Exploration Rover
Mars Exploration Rover

Step 1: Pick a Partner.

Invite your students to register their contestants in Dancing Among the Stars! Each student or pair of students will nominate his or her favorite object in the solar system, and the reason for their preferences, through a performance (such as a rap, a video, a song, or other presentation determined by the teacher).
  • Pre-requisite knowledge includes the difference between our solar system and our galaxy-a distinction that is widely misunderstood. An activity that can be used to assess student understanding includes:
  • Another pre-requisite is a familiarity with the types of objects in our solar system. If students have not already covered the solar system in class this year, activities that provide an overview of the solar system include:
  • An understanding of the scale of the solar system will also be instructive. A variety of scale model activities are available at "Scale of the Solar System: The Journey Begins."

There are a variety of resources students can use to support their "contestants". Recommended sites that students can visit to gather information include:

After students have given their presentations, the teacher should organize them into small groups for the project, based on student interests.

  • Good objects for the projects include Venus, Earth, the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, comets, and asteroids.
  • Due to the limited historical mission information available on Mercury, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, we do not recommend that students use these objects as the focus of their projects.

Step 2: Learning the Dance Steps: Research Historical Knowledge

Ask your students, in groups determined at the end of Step 1, to examine information written about their "contestant" between 50 and 100 years ago. Have each group of students create a list of what has changed, in our understanding of their contestant (its motions, number of known moons, composition, size, features, etc.) and in the technology and engineering that we use. Consider having the students present the results of their research as oral presentations, comic strips, podcasts, PowerPoint's, or movie posters.

Unless your class has access to a library which includes books written before 1962 about the solar system, we suggest providing some of the Google books below to your students, such as one of these, or invite them to conduct a Google Books search of their own.

Step 3: Practicing the Dance: Connect Our Knowledge with Missions

Each student within a group will examine a different solar system mission that has studied his or her "contestant." The students will each create a trading card (see template and example card) that includes their findings.

Student findings should include

  • Mission Goal: What the mission was trying to determine when it visited the "contestant"
  • Instrumentation: What instruments the mission included
  • Discoveries: What it learned about their "contestant"
  • If possible, the students should also include information about the different people and skills required to conduct the mission (ex: mission engineers, scientists, managers, etc.)

Students can use Solar System Exploration Missions Database to link to the different missions studying their contestants; this table (link to Missions) suggests specific missions for each object to help narrow down the choices.

Step 4: Final Rehearsal: Analyze Our Learning Progression

How does scientific knowledge change? How did missions contribute? Have the class create a multi-tiered timeline of the changes in understanding of the solar system.

Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity
Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity

First, Invite students to read "What Goes Around Comes Around" and conduct the activity Strange New Planet with the class to model the relationship between changing technology and new knowledge.

Then create the timeline. Ideally, create an oversized table on the wall; each contestant will have a row, and each decade between 1950 and 2020 will have a column. Invite the students to place their trading cards from Step 3 into this table, and to add information in the 1950 column from Step 2.

Invite the students to look for patterns and similarities. This reflection can be done through guided questions to which the students should respond, possibly in pairs as they think and then share their thoughts; it could also be in student-generated stories to respond to the questions:

  • Which decades provided the most new information? Which decades had the most missions? Invite the students to construct explanations for why NASA conducted these missions at these times. What is the relationship between mission objectives and the next mission?
  • How are the different "contestants" similar?
  • How does knowledge about one "contestant" affect our understanding of other "contestants"?
  • What is the relationship between the technology used and the knowledge? Between the knowledge and the next mission?
  • In what ways do scientific ideas change?
  • What are some of the careers involved in planning and conducting a NASA robotic solar system mission?
  • How has our new understanding of the solar system and of the technology that we've developed conducting missions benefitted our society?

Step 5: Standing Back Stage: What's Next?

Ask your students to consider what questions remain unanswered-what don't we know yet about their "contestants"?

Invite each group to design a new mission that will help to answer some of the questions. This step could include group projects: creating a 3D model of their proposed mission, a PowerPoint describing the mission, a report on their mission; it could also be conducted as a class discussion.

Step 6: Dance Among the Stars!

Each team of students should examine their questions and their timeline and compare it to the others, then determine which other team is the most compatible to theirs.

  • Did knowledge about the other "contestant" object provide new insight into their own?
  • Were their missions related, or did they build upon each other?
  • Were similar technologies used or adapted between the two contestants?
  • Would a single mission help to answer important questions about both contestant objects?

The teams work together to create a final product, such as a video, to share why their "contestants" are the most "compatible," and thus the best "dancers. (Option: consider inviting three volunteers or teachers to serve as a panel and add commentary to the presentations.) After these products are presented to the class, the students will vote on which pair of "contestants" was indeed most compatible... and thus the winner of "Dancing Among the Stars!"


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