If you teach the solar system, at some point, you and your students will likely have to create a scale model too. This project doesn’t have to be dreaded nor does it have to be fully teacher dependent. There are many options when it comes to creating this solar system scale model and that’s what this post is about today.
Options for Creating the Solar System Scale Model
Before you get started with models in the classroom, consider asking your students these questions:
- “What makes something a model?”
- “How are the models used?”
- “Why are the models used?”
Then consider having students create their own scaled models first as a way to predict the size and distance. This will make the impact much greater afterward. After creating models (such as the options below), give images of the solar system and discuss why they are inaccurate models.
These options are in no particular order and you do not have to use just one. In fact, creating multiple models will help students comprehend more.
1.) If the Moon Were Only a Pixel Website. I absolutely love this website. Just by simply scrolling this website to the right your students can see how far away everything is in space and their relative sizes. The creator of this website includes a little humor as you are scrolling through his site. It’s definitely worth the visit! You can visit the If the Moon Were Only a Pixel Website here.
2.) Use Cheerios Cereal for Planet Size. Provide students with a chart that tells them the diameter of each planet. Then, explain the scale – that 1 inch = 1 km. With this said, 1 piece of Cheerios Cereal will equal 1/2 inch or 1/2 km. Discuss how many pieces would they need to represent Mercury? Then, change the scale to where 1 piece of Cheerios Cereal represents the diameter of Mercury and ask how many pieces would be needed to represent the diameter of the Earth? (About 2 1/2 pieces). This means that now the scale is 1/2 inch =4,879 km (or round up to 4,900 if easier for your students). Then provide students with a bag of cheerios, a calculator (if they can’t divide large numbers yet), markers, glue, and paper. Have students glue their Cheerio “planets” diameters on the paper you choose and label them. You can have students place them in the order of the planets, from greatest to smallest in diameter or vice versa. When students are finished, to place it in a bit more perspective, it would take 285 Cheerios to make the sun’s diameter.
- Mercury – 4,879 km (1 Cheerio)
- Venus – 12,104 km (2 Cheerios)
- Earth – 12,742 km (2 1/2 Cheerios)
- Mars – 6,779 km (1 Cheerio)
- Jupiter – 139,820 km (28 1/2 Cheerios)
- Saturn – 116, 460 km (24 Cheerios)
- Uranus – 50,724 km (10 Cheerios)
- Neptune – 49,244 km (10 Cheerios)
- Sun – 1.391 Million km (285 Cheerios)
3.) National Geographic Video. In this video, a group of friends works together to create a scale model in 7 miles of the desert. It really helps provide a visual of the distance between planets and their sizes in comparison to one another. The clip is relatively short (7 minutes) and would be a great way to introduce the topic to students. (You can also find the video here.)
4.) Astronomical Units with Kitchen Items. Yes, we’ve seen nearly all of the different solar system scale models we can make out of our household items, but this one uses astronomical units and is for group creation. Provide each group with 2 poppy seeds, 1 medium grape, 2 mustard seeds, 2 peppercorns, 1 M&M (or Skittle), index cards, a calculator, a metric ruler, and adding machine tape (or at least 40 cm strip of paper).
Using your adding machine tape paper, have your students draw a line segment that is 40 cm long. Then have them mark each cm on the paper, for a total of 40 marks. At the beginning mark, they will label it the sun. Then using the scale that 1 cm = 1 AU, have students work together to plot and label points along the line segment to represent each planet’s relative distance from the sun. If desired, you can have them use millimeter marks on their ruler to show the tenths of units. After plotting and labeling each planet’s distance from the sun, have students tape or glue down the model to its corresponding point.
- Mercury – 0.4 AU – at 4 mm mark – poppy seed
- Venus – 0.7 AU – at 7 mm mark – mustard seed
- Earth – 1 AU – at 1 cm mark – mustard seed
- Mars – 1.5 AU – at 1.5 cm mark – poppy seed
- Jupiter – 5.2 AU – at 5.2 cm mark – medium grape
- Saturn – 9.6 AU – at 9.6 cm mark – M&M/Skittle
- Uranus – 19.2 AU – at 19.2 cm mark – peppercorn
- Neptune – 30.1 AU – at 30.1 cm mark – peppercorn
(If desired, you can have students determine the AU of planets by knowing their distance from the sun and dividing that by Earth’s distance from the sun. Then students round to the nearest tenth. To find which model represents which planet, take the diameter of each planet in km and change the scale to mm and then use that to estimate which model is closest to that scale size. Additionally, if you wanted to include the sun in this model, you’d need a basketball.)
5.) Create a Hallway Display. This solar system scale model can teach others in your school too! Find 16 feet of hallway space in your school where you and your students can create a solar system display. Create a two feet wide sun out of yellow butcher paper to represent half of the sun. Tape the sun to the left hand, cleared wall space. Next cut out circles to represent the planets. (Mercury 3/8 inch, Venus 7/8 inch, Earth 1 inch, Mars 9/16 inch, Jupiter 11 inches, Saturn 10 inches, Uranus 4 inches, Neptune 3 3/4 inches). Then, place the planets away from the sun in these distances:
- Mercury – 2 inches
- Venus – 3 inches
- Earth – 4 inches
- Mars – 6 inches
- Jupiter – 1 foot, 9 inches
- Saturn – 3 feet, 2 inches
- Uranus – 6 feet, 5 inches
- Neptune – 10 feet, 1 inch
Break students up into groups and assign them a planet. Have them research information about that planet and write interesting facts on index cards. One card could state the size of the planet (diameter) and the distance from the sun (actual distance, not scaled). Tape these cards underneath each planet. As your students learn new information about each planet, they can add to their display. What’s even more exciting is that at the end of your unit, students have a complete wall to study!
6.) Orbital Paths with String. Outside on a basketball court or similar area, use a piece of chalk to draw a circle and label it the sun. Then have a student stand in this area to represent it. Next, take a piece of string that is about 1.2 m (or 3 feet, 11 inches) in length and tie a piece of chalk to it. The student who is the sun will hold one end of the string while another will pull the string out at its full distance to create a circle representing the orbit of Mercury. Have a student label this orbit and stand there to represent this planet. Continue doing this using other strings (you won’t be able to do the outer planets, but you can have your students figure them out using the formula of taking the astronomical units of a planet (see above) and multiplying it by 3 meters, [10 feet]):
- Mercury – 1.2 m (3 feet, 11 inches)
- Venus – 2.2 m (7 feet, 2 inches)
- Earth – 3.0 m (10 feet, 0 inches)
- Mars – 4.6 m (15 feet, 2 inches)
- Jupiter – 15.6 m (51 feet, 2 inches)
- Saturn – 28.6 m (93 feet, 10 inches)
- Uranus – 57.6 m (189 feet)
- Neptune – 90.3 m (296 feet, 3 inches)
7.) Toilet Paper. On this website right here, you can see how they took toilet paper sheets to create a solar system scaled model. It walks you through step-by-step what you need to do too.
Solar System Calculator Resources
If you need a solar system scale model calculator to help you as you are working on these activities with your class, I’ve got you covered. You can find one through Think Zone that also helps you create a map or this resource, Build a Solar System Model, that contains not only a calculator but lots of other great resources to help you too! You’ll definitely want to check both of those resources out.
If you’re looking for other great solar system resources to supplement your solar system unit, check out my solar system resources on Teachers Pay Teachers here.