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The Best of the Solar System

Teaching Tips - Detailed Lesson Plan

Introduce students to planetary research and familiarize them with the planets and their features.

Key Concepts:

  • Each planet has unique and identifiable features.
  • Planets have some common features.
  • Images can be used to study the planets and their features.

Review The Best of the Solar System components. The Teaching Tips (Lesson Summary and Lesson Plan) are text files that can be easily printed for future reference off-line. Print student worksheets:

Worksheet 1

Worksheet 2



in PDF

in PDF

Before Going to the Computers
Students answer the following questions individually or in small groups, then discuss their answers with the entire class.

  • Which planets do you think are visible from Earth with the unaided human eye?
  • What do you think planets look like when viewed from Earth with the unaided human eye?
  • Before the telescope was invented, what were ancient astronomers able to learn about the planets?
  • When was the telescope first used to study astronomy?
  • What are some discoveries made with the telescope?
  • When did spacecraft first send back data and images from the planets?
  • What features do you think we can see in images of the planets?

Part I. Observing Images
At the computer students select ten images from a larger collection to study and describe. The images are not captioned or identified to increase student curiosity and encourage them to focus on the details.
Students examine the images. They look for shapes, patterns, and colors. Is it bright or dark; smooth or rough; solid, liquid, or gas? They make inferences (guesses) about the features and planets based on their observations.
Students keep detailed notes. In their journal, they list the image number, describe what they see, and tell what they think the image shows. They should skip about six lines after the description of each image for Part II of this assignment. They see the following sample journal entry:

The surface appears to be solid. There are many dark, 
circular areas of different sizes on the surface. They
look like craters. The sides around the craters seem
to be higher and brighter than the dark center. The
areas around the craters look smoother than the rest
of the surface. I think this image shows a close-up
view of the surface of the Moon.

When they have finished the descriptions for all ten images, students check their work by peer review. Students read their descriptions to other students working with them to see if they can recognize the image. If their peers can not recognize the image, the student should add more details and revise the descriptions.

Part II. The Researcher's Description
The images from Part I are presented with captions. Students compare their notes for each image with the researcher's description. Students are instructed not to change their original descriptions, but they can add to them. Students answer three questions about each image:

  1. What does the image actually show?
  2. What visual characteristics will help you recognize this planet or special feature in the future?
  3. What else would you like to know about the planet or special features shown in the image?

Part III. Summary
Students summarize what they have learned by listing the features for each of the planets they studied. Students complete a chart like the one below.

Students read the following summary:

As you studied the images and completed the chart, you may have noticed a pattern. The four inner planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars have solid surfaces. They are called the terrestrial planets. The Jovian planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune have thick, soupy atmospheres and no solid surface. They are known as the gas giants. The most distant planet, Pluto, does not fit the pattern. Pluto is small and icy with little atmosphere.

When students have finished, they can browse the Exploring the Planets gallery ( or other on-line resources on the planets through links at the end of the assignment.


Use a combination of discussion participation, student worksheets and this paper and pencil test.  Students may also be shown a set of new images of planets and moons, such as those available from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific Web site, and asked to categorize them.


Background Information
Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are the five planets visible to the human eye. Although the planets look like stars, they do not move like stars. Ancient stargazers noticed that five stars changed position with respect to the other stars and each other. The Greeks called these stars planets, which means "wanderers". For hundreds of years researchers tried to explain the motion of these "wandering stars". Students can learn more about early astronomers and their work by doing library research on Aristarchus of Samos, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler.

Astronomers began using the telescope to study the sky in the 1600's. For over 300 years the telescope was the most important tool for astronomers. Galileo made some of the earliest discoveries with the telescope. However, Galileo did not invent the telescope; he was not even the first to use a telescope to study the sky. Galileo is known for his careful observations and the detailed records in his journal. Galileo sketched the features of the moon and even measured some of the mountains. He discovered the four large satellites of Jupiter. Galileo observed that Venus went through phases like the phases of the moon. Sunspots were discovered independently by Galileo, Fabricius and Scheiner. Around 1655 Christiaan Huygens discovered the rings of Saturn and Saturn's largest moon. In 1781 William Herschel discovered Uranus. Later he discovered two new satellites of Saturn and two satellites of Uranus. Leverrier and Adams calculated the approximate location of Neptune. Using these calculations, Galle and d'Arrest were able to confirm Neptune's existence in 1846. In 1930 Clyde Tombaugh confirmed the existence of Pluto. In 1950 Jan Oort described the Oort Cloud, the source of comets. Halley predicted the return one of the most famous comets, now called Comet Halley. Shoemaker and Levy discovered the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that hit Jupiter in 1994. To learn more about telescope research, students can do library research about any of the people mentioned above.

In 1962 the first spacecraft (Mariner 2 to Venus) left Earth to explore the planets. Since then dozens of spacecraft have sent back important information about the planets and spectacular images. For this assignment students will study some of the best images of the Solar System. The collection contains images from all the planets, including Earth. The images depict the variety of features found on the planets and their satellites. Some of the features found in the images are volcanoes, lava flows, mountains, canyons, valleys, rocks, soil, dunes, and craters. Other images include clouds, atmospheres, belts, zones, and atmospheric storms, such as Jupiter's Great Red Spot. The images show the rings and moons of planets. See The Researcher's Description for more details about the images. By studying these features, researchers are able to learn about the origin of the Solar System and how the planets have changed over time.

The Researcher's Descriptions contain detailed information for each image. Students will be able to answer question 1 from the title. In question 2 students should indicate visual characteristics that will help them identify the planets and their special features in the future. For example students may note the smooth blue color of Neptune or the craters on Mercury.

Most middle school students recognize the names of the planets and have a general sense of their relative order from the Sun. To confirm this, ask the students to diagram the Solar System or list the planets in order from the Sun before they begin. Use the study questions to assess their knowledge about exploration of the Solar System, and use the discussion to prepare them to study images from spacecraft.

Before going to the computers, assign two to three students to work together at each computer. Observations can be enhanced by student discussions, but students should make independent entries in their science journals. Let students know that Galileo is famous because he made careful observations and kept a detailed journal.

Remind students to leave room for Part II notes after the entry for each image. If students are not familiar with peer review, you may want to take some time before they go to the computers to discuss how to do it.

If there are not enough computers for the class, students could work on library research suggested in the background information. If time is limited, students can select fewer than ten images. If time allows, you may want students to sketch the image in their journals.

Accurate responses to the questions in "Before Going to the Computer" indicate basic familiarity with the planets. Part I journal entries can be used to determine students initial ability to identify and describe the planets and their features. After students complete Part II, the class could be shown slides of the planets and major features to see if the students recognize them.

Extensions and Homework Assignments
In Part II students indicate additional information they would like to have about particular planets and features. Students could conduct library or on-line research to get this additional information.

Students could conduct additional research and prepare a report or presentation on one of the following topics:

  • summarize current knowledge about one of the planets
  • compare our Moon to another satellite
  • compare impact craters to volcanic craters
  • investigate volcanism on two or more planets
  • investigate the origin and meanings of the names of the planets

The images can be downloaded. If software is available, students could use selected images to develop a slide show or on-line presentation.

Ties to Science Framework
National Science Education Standards

  • Content Standard A (5-8) As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop the abilities of scientific inquiry and understanding about scientific inquiry.
    • make systematic observations
    • compare ideas with current scientific understanding
    • develop descriptions and explanations using evidence.
  • Content Standard D (5-8) As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop an understanding of Earth in the solar system.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy

  • Grades 6-8
    Students should back up their understanding with activities using a variety of astronomical tools.
  • By the end of the 8th grade students should know that nine planets of very different size, composition, and surface features move around the sun in nearly circular orbits. Some planets have a great variety of moons and even flat rings of rock and ice particles orbiting around them. Some of the planets and moons show evidence of geologic activity.

Carr, Michael H., et al. The Geology of Terrestrial Planets. Washington, D.C.: NASA SP-469, 1984.
Sheehan, William. Worlds in the Sky: Planetary Discovery from Earliest Times through Magellan and Voyager. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1992.
Surkov, Yuri. Exploration of Terrestrial Planets from Spacecraft: Information, Investigation, Interpretation. West Chester, England: Ellis Horwood Limited, 1990.
Watters, Thomas. Smithsonian Guide: Planets. USA: MacMillian, 1995.


Cyber CenterObserving ImagesResearcher's DescriptionSummaryLesson Plan/Teaching Tips

Created by: Smithsonian National Air and Space MuseumNASM Educational Services

Copyright 2001 UC Regents.       last update 8/27/01