The Best of the Solar System

Teaching Tips - Detailed Lesson Plan

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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. Printable (black on white) versions of the  Teaching Tips (Lesson Summary and Lesson Plan) are available for future reference off-line.  It may be advantageous to download the entire lesson onto a local computer to avoid long download times for the images.  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 and 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 to 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.  They are asked to list the planets in their order from the Sun--this will help them, so if there is much doubt you might want to draw a diagram on a board or poster.  The features they record should be the identifications from the Researcher's Descriptions, which should overlap with their own descriptions. 

As their list moves from the terrestrial planets near the sun to Jupiter and beyond, they should be able to notice a marked change in the types of features observed in the images.  Terrestrial planets are likely to have mountains, rocks, soil, canyons, and volcanoes, (Earth also has clouds). The gas giants have smoother-looking surfaces and may be belted, have definite atmospheric zones, rings,  and storms.  This should bring out the fact that there are two basic categories of planets, in the inner and outer zones of the solar system.  This difference will not be evident in the moons, since most moons are rocky or icy bodies "captured" by their planets. 

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. It's ok if you thought Pluto might be like the gas giants.  Current images of it cannot show any details of the surface, so they look very smooth.

When students have finished, they can browse the Exploring the Planets gallery (at the Air and Space Museum) 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.


Cyber Center Observing ImagesResearcher's DescriptionSummaryLesson Plan/Teaching Tips

Created by: Smithsonian National Air and Space MuseumNASM Educational Services

Copyright 2001 UC Regents.              Updated 2/2/01