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

Earth and Space Science Class 4: Our Solar System

I want all parents whose children come to these classes to know that I love teaching your children! It takes me a while to prepare the material and to tidy up our house before everyone descends upon us, but it is well worth it.

We had small classes this week. I hope everyone recovers from illnesses and looks after themselves for the rest of the term. Last week we finished off with a short quiz about the planets in our solar system. This week we built upon this activity. We first made a solar system jigsaw,

solar system jigsaw cropped

solar system jigsaw

which led to some good conversations about scale (since the planets are not drawn to scale in that jigsaw, and the distances between them certainly are not). All groups then tried an activity about seeing planets (number 4.3 in the Universe in a Box activity book). I explained how the position of Mercury and Venus means we cannot see them in the middle of the night, and it is best to see them at dawn or twilight, hence Venus often being called the Morning Star or the Evening Star. Incidentally, there is a wonderful picture of Venus and Mars in the sky near a crescent moon as one of the recent APOD pictures. (26 February 2015: Love and War By Moonlight, taken by Kevin Bourque)

In one group we had a great discussion about what happens to Jupiter when an asteroid goes straight into the gas that makes up the planet. I haven’t found a link about this from a reputable website but it seems that if the asteroid gets close enough to the centre of Jupiter it just becomes absorbed into the core. Sometimes amateur astronomers manage to capture asteroid impact on Jupiter and I also found some photos of the damage that comet Shoemaker Levy did to Jupiter’s surface in 1994. The dark cloud of the explosion is larger than the size of our entire planet.

The younger group also modelled asteroids by breaking up bits of playdough and then squashing them together again (activity 4.4). The older group went outside to draw elliptical orbits with string and chalk (activity 4.5).

We also did a small scale model of our solar system by making the distance between the Sun and Neptune about 238 cm and the other distances were scaled appropriately. Next week we hope to get out into the field and do a larger scale model (scaling the distances to be metres instead of cm: Activity 4.6 in the activity book).

Additional activities


  • Subscribe to the Astronomy Picture of the Day. There are some wonderful pictures on here, with short explanations by an astronomer so you can understand what you are looking at.
  • Watch the Solar system video on BBC Bitesize.
  • Also watch this very short video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson explaining how long you might be able to survive on each of the planets in the solar system.
  • Solar Walk app for tablets and smartphones.
  • Get an app with a map of the night sky (I use Mobius Sky Map), or subscribe to updates from your local astronomy society or planetarium, and go out on a clear night to see what you can spot in the sky.


  • Watch the Neil DeGrasse Tyson video linked to above.
  • Listen to one of the many Solar System songs on You Tube. We like this one but don’t know why they say Mars is boring. I think that’s lazy songwriting.




  • Do a jigsaw.
  • Go on a Solar System Walk.
  • Create your own Solar System model, perhaps using cooking ingredients like mustard seeds and lentils.
  • Go outside at night with an app mentioned above and have a look in the sky.
  • Get your own binoculars or telescope for astronomy.


Pizza decorated to look like Jupiter, from ijuan12 on HubPages

And finally

We didn’t discuss exoplanets in the class, but this is a cool planet that has been discovered that is (so far) the only planet outside our solar system with rings that we know of – and they are 200 times wider than Saturn’s rings.

An artist’s impression of how this exoplanet would look, with rings far larger than those around Saturn. Photo supplied to ABC by Ron Miller.