Earth and Space Science Class 5: Solar System walk, and Constellations

Outdoor learning: I took each group to the playing fields opposite our house and we paced out the distances between the planets, using a scale of 1 m for every 20,000,000,000 km. We had small groups, which was good, as we didn’t have to go as far as Neptune, but it gave them a sense of the huge distances between everything in space.

I asked our older group if they could guess where, on this scale, our nearest extra-solar star would be. Suggestions varied but still remained in our neighbourhood. Proxima Centuri is 4.37 light years away from the sun, which by my calculations would make it 1,410 km away from our playing fields – almost as far as Adelaide from Sydney. (Initially I calculated it as being off the planet, which shows I have to pay more attention to powers of ten.)

Proxima Centauri, our nearest neighbour. ESA/Hubble [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
 This took us neatly on to learning about stars and constellations.

In our younger group, I spent longer explaining about constellations and I read a couple of descriptions from a library book we’d borrowed recently. (“Constellations: A Glow-in-the-Dark Guide to the Night Sky,” by Chris Sasaki and illustrated by Alan Flinn.)

We carried out a couple of activities from the Universe in a Box Activity Kit: 5.2 Zodiac and Planetary Movements; and 5.4 Constellation Shapes, where we made a model of Cassiopeia to show that the stars in the same part of the sky are all huge distances away. Cassiopeia is actually a northern hemisphere constellation. Perhaps another time I will choose one visible from the southern hemisphere, like Orion.

563px-Cassiopeia_starfield by Sadalsuud, on Wikimedia Commons

Poseidon's punishment: Cassiopea as a constellation sitting in the heavens tied to a chair. Hyginus, Poeticon Astronomicon. "U.S. Naval Observatory Library"
Poseidon’s punishment: Cassiopea as a constellation sitting in the heavens tied to a chair. Hyginus, Poeticon Astronomicon. “U.S. Naval Observatory Library”

We also made the stars different colours: three of them are blue, one is orange and one I couldn’t work out but I made it yellow for a bit of variation. If you’d like to learn more about the colour of stars there is a simple guide here, and this one from CSIRO is much more advanced.

I personally found the zodiac activity interesting. It reminded me that the zodiac signs arise from a real calendar, that given by the constellations we can see as our planet rotates around the Sun. The constellation of your birth sign is the one that is blocked by the Sun on your birthday. Since the planets rotate around the Sun too, they will appear in front of different constellations due to their motion, and since their orbits are not at the same speed as ours, sometimes they will go ‘retrograde’, which means they appear to us to move backwards . That doesn’t go to say that I believe anything the astrologers say about what effect each of the planets have on our daily life, but at least I know what it means when they say something like “the full moon is in Virgo.”

Next week we will work on a timeline for important people in astronomy and when they made their discoveries. Then we will be moving on to meteorology, natural disasters and human effect on the environment.

More information about stars and constellations:

BasicIntermediateAdvanced. Look up any of the 88 recognised constellations here

Sydney Observatory has a sky map for each month on their website. Download the March 2015 map here. You can also make a Planisphere by following Activity 5.3 from Universe in a Box.

Life and death of a star: simple version from ESA

More complex version from NASA (aimed at students in grades 9 to 12)


Just a few resources this week. Those who like reading and writing can check out the links above. For art activities, please see the Yuumii workshop archives. If anyone has other tactile or kinaesthetic activities relating to stars or constellations please let me know.


‘Color the Universe’ free downloadable pdf booklet from Chandra X-ray observatory in Harvard. Colouring, mazes, a wordsearch and dot-to-dot. Quite a bit of text in this booklet.

Interactive games including online jigsaws/match the object




(Videos sourced from WatchKnowLearn site.)

Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s COSMOS: DVD boxset from the ABC shop.

Just for fun:

Astronomy Snakes and Ladders from Universe in a Box

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