Beacon Lesson Plan Library

Nine Around the Sun

Sandi King
Bay District Schools


Have you wondered about the planets in our solar system? Using this lesson plan as a guide, students explore and record the characteristics of the nine planets. Students learn about gravitation as it applies to orbits.


The student knows characteristics of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.

The student knows that gravity is the one of the forces that keeps planets arranged in orbits around the Sun and the Moon in orbit around the Earth.


- Diagnostic Assessment, one per student

- Summative Assessment #1, Planets In Orbit, one per student.

-A variety of non-fiction and reference books from your media center about the planets and our solar system.

- Computers (at least one) used for research on the Web

- Planet Characteristic Teacher Information chart from the associated files

- Planet Characteristic Data student chart from the associated files (1 per student plus an extra 1 per group – that is 9 above the number of students in your class)

- Wall chart labels from the associated files

_ Light-colored construction paper rectangles, 4" x 5", 13 pieces per planet (for example: 13 lightblue rectangles for the group that is researching Venus, 13 pink rectangles for the group that is researching Mars, etc.)

_ 9 black magic markers (not fine tip)

- Poster of the planet mnemonic from the attached file (1 enlarged for the class, or 1 for each student)

- The book
Wells, Robert E. [Is a Blue Whale The Biggest Thing There Is? Morton Grove, IL. Whitman. 1993.]


1. Download, print, and duplicate the diagnostic assessment tool. It is available from the unit assessment package that accompanies the unit, Outer Space and Cyber Space. (See Extensions.)

2. Download, print, and become familiar with the Planet Characteristics Teacher Information chart from the associated files.

3. Download, print, and duplicate the Planet Characteristics Data chart for each student, plus one for each group (9 above the number of students in your class).

4. Download and print the mnemonic. It can be enlarged for a class poster or duplicated for each student.

5. Locate an area on the wall to assemble a large planet characteristic chart. This must be accessible to students, as they will be adding to the chart as they locate information. It must also be an area that can have paper adhered to it in a chart style. If there is no such wall available in the classroom, consider using the hall.

6. Download and print the wall chart labels. Arrange the labels on the wall to match the arrangement on the Planet Characteristic Data student chart.

7. Locate and display various non-fiction and reference books from your media center on the planets and our solar system. These will be used for student research, as well as for reading for enjoyment.

8. Locate, bookmark, and become familiar with the suggested Web sites to be used for references by students.

9. Download, print, and duplicate the summative assessment tool, Planets in Orbit. It is available from the unit's associated files. (See Extensions.)

10. Group students into nine groups. Assign one planet to each group.

11. Locate and become familiar with the book [Is a Blue Whale The Biggest Thing There Is?] (See Materials List.)

12. Download and print the planet name cards to be used on day 6.

13. Prepare light-colored construction paper rectangles, 4" x 5", 13 pieces per planet (For example: 13 lightblue rectangles for the group that is researching Venus, 13 pink rectangles for the group that is researching Mars, etc.) These will be used on which to write planet characteristics and will be displayed on the wall chart.

14. Locate nine black magic markers for writing characteristics for the wall chart.

15. Decide on a unit of measurement and locate an area to display the planet distances from the sun from the day 6 activity.


NOTE - This lesson plan covers the science content for the unit, Outer Space and Cyber Space. The instruction and activities will be completed in eight days during science class.

Day 1

1. If you are doing this lesson as part of the unit, Outer Space and Cyber Space, give the diagnostic assessment before beginning any instruction. This assessment is not to be graded, but rather is to be used to guide instruction to meet the needs of the students. See the Extension section of this lesson plan for a link to the unit's associated files.

Day 2

1. Introduce the study of our solar system by displaying various books about space. Read the book [Is a Blue Whale The Biggest Thing There Is?] Initiate a discussion with the students about what they think the other planets are like.

* Ask inquiring questions, such as: “How far away is Saturn? How old would you be if you lived on Jupiter? What is Pluto made of? Why can’t we visit Neptune? Which planets can we see without a telescope? How hot or cold is Mercury? How long does it take Uranus to revolve around the sun? What keeps the planets in their right places? Does the sun have gravity?” (Don’t provide any answers to these questions, just encourage the discussion by asking “Why?” and “What makes you think so?”)

2. Explain that we will be doing research to find out about the planets. We will be able to find answers to many of our class questions. Encourage students to bring any factual books or other media they have at home that might be a source of information.

3. Using the labels provided in the associated files, build the frame to the Planet Characteristics wall chart by attaching the labels to the wall in the style of the data chart that will be used by the students. (See associated files.)

* This should be done with the assistance of the students and with each category explained, as it is added to the chart. Incorporate visual representations whenever possible, such as using a globe to show what the word diameter means. Always use Earth as the model.

* Be sure to point out specifics such as: temperatures will be measured in Fahrenheit, revolutions will be measured in Earth years, distance from the sun will be measured in both miles and astronomical units (AU), and so forth. Information to assist teachers and students in understanding the terminology is on the wall chart cards.

4. Divide the students into nine groups. Assign each group one planet to investigate. (Since many of the examples given in this lesson plan use Earth characteristics, you may want to assign the planet Earth to a group that may need the extra assistance the examples will offer.)

* Distribute the blank Planet Characteristics Data charts for each student plus one for each group that will be completed by the group and turned in for review.

5. Explain the procedure for the research activity.

* Each student should record their individual research data on their individual chart.

* Then, students combine information from each individual in the group onto one group chart.

* Next, one completed group chart is given to the teacher for review and feedback.

* Upon receiving the group chart back from the teacher, students correct any mistakes, complete their individual charts for their planet, and write the information on construction paper that will be adhered to the wall for the wall chart.

* Finally, groups will share information as it is displayed on the wall chart. All students complete their individual charts for all planets using information from the wall chart.

6. Answer any questions about the research activity and use of the individual charts and the wall chart.

7. Students are now prepared to begin research. They know their group. They know their assigned planet. They know what characteristics they are looking for. They know where and how to write their information.

Day 3

1. As a review of the nine planets, describe the mnemonic from the attached files, show the class poster or distribute individual copies to the students. Read or sing the mnemonic several times with the class.

2. Begin research. All groups need not use the same system to get this task accomplished.

* Groups should be encouraged to do their own problem solving and organizing of the group. Groups must decide on a system where each member of the group has responsibilities. Some suggested responsibilities are researchers (find the information), editors (verify the information), recorders (write the information on the group chart and on paper for the wall chart), and presenters (present the information to the class for the wall chart).

* Other groups may assign different students to find different characteristics. Another option is for different students to use different reference materials (some use books, some encyclopedias, some Internet, some computer programs). If this option is used, be sure students rotate reference materials so that all students use all types of reference materials.

* Most group members will have several responsibilities, such as a researcher may also serve as a presenter.

* Remind students to record where they found their information at the bottom of the chart. Required reference information is stated on the chart.

* No information will be presented and placed on the wall chart until the group chart has been completed for the assigned planet and given to the teacher for review and feedback.

* It is suggested that you use a computer lab for this research. Be sure to take the reference books to the lab also.

* This will not be completed in one science period.

3. The web sites with the most student friendly format and most easily accessible information are numbers 1 - 4 from the Web link section of this lesson plan.

Day 4

1. Complete research on the nine planets. Each group should now have a completed group chart of their assigned planet to turn in to the teacher for review and feedback. All students should retain their individual data charts. These will be completed/corrected and used as study guides for the assessments.

2. Teachers compare the students’ data charts to the teacher information chart provided in the attached file. This review and feedback procedure by the teacher results in formative assessment. Give written and/or verbal corrective and affirmative feedback. Return charts to the groups for further research, correction, and sharing within the group.

* * NOTE: I found that different sources gave slightly different figures in many areas. Since space exploration is not an exact science, many of the figures normally used are estimates and averages. As long as the students’ information is close, it may be accepted.

Day 5

1. Complete the wall chart by asking for information from each group for each of the categories. Do each category at a time so that the information can be compared and contrasted as the wall chart is being built.

* As information is placed on the wall chart, students complete their individual charts for all planets. These will be used to as study guides for the summative assessment.

* This activity is a formative assessment as the teacher gives corrective and affirmative feedback to students as they discuss the various characteristics and place them on the wall chart. Encourage comparisons between planets.

2. Begin discussion of planet placement from the sun. Ask inquiry questions, such as “What keeps the planets in their place? Why don’t any of the planets bump into each other? Why don’t any of the planets just float away? What keeps Earth’s moon in its place? What keeps the Neptune’s moons from joining Uranus’s moons? Why don’t the moons revolve around the sun?” (These are inquiry questions that are asked to make the students think. No answers should be given at this time. This should be used for motivation for learning about gravitational pulls and orbits tomorrow.)

Day 6

1. Review planet characteristics using the wall chart and student data charts. Use this activity as a formative assessment giving both corrective, by saying, -Look at your chart again and compare the diameter of Earth and Mars. Which one is larger?,- and affirmative, by saying, -Right. Neither Venus nor Mercury have moons.- Give feedback.

2. Discuss gravitational pull. Emphasize these facts:
- ALL matter has a gravitational pull. It is produced by all pieces of matter in the universe and pulls on all pieces of matter in the universe, regardless of the matter type. Some pulls are very strong and some are very weak. The gravitational attraction of every bit of matter in the earth for every other bit of matter amounts to an inward pull that holds the earth together against the pressure forces tending to push it outward. (Newton’s Law)

- Gravity is ALWAYS attractive. It always pulls, never pushes.

- Gravity can act over very large distances.

- The strength of the gravitational pull between two objects depends on two factors: how big the objects are (their mass) and how far apart they are. Larger objects have more gravitational pull than smaller ones. As distance between objects increases, strength of the pull decreases. (Summary: The strength of the force of gravity between two objects gets larger the larger the objects are but smaller the farther apart they are.)

- Gravity pulls from the center of the object, not from its surface. For example, everything on Earth is pulled towards the Earth’s core in the center of the Earth.

- Gravity is an important force only when objects with a very large mass are involved, like a planet. Most other objects don’t have enough mass for gravity to have much strength.

- The sun’s gravity is what holds all the planets in their orbit.

- The Earth’s gravity is what holds our moon in its orbit.

- Each planet’s gravitational pull is what holds the planet’s moons in orbit.

Be sure to encourage higher levels of thinking from your students by asking inquiry questions, such as the following: “What would keep the space station in its orbit? What keeps the planets from being pulled into the sun? When the space shuttle is in orbit, does it run its engine? When an astronaut is walking in space, why isn’t he/she pulled into the sun by the sun’s gravity?” (I used “From Apples to Orbits: The Gravity Story” as my source. These specific questions are not found there, but information about gravity found can be analyzed to determine the answers. The link is available in the Web link section of this lesson plan.)

3. Now that students have some understanding of gravity (even Einstein didn’t get it all figured out, and the theories are only theories and can change as we learn more) use their knowledge of gravity to explain orbits as it pertains to the planets around the sun and the satellites, both natural and man-made, around the planets. These are facts that need to be emphasized:
- The sun’s gravity pulls on each planet according to the amount of mass the planet has and the distance from the sun the planet is. Remember that size and distance determine the strength of the gravitational pull. Each planet has a unique orbit because each planet has a unique mass and distance, so each has a unique amount of gravitational pull.

- No two planets are exactly alike, so no two planets have the same amount of gravitational pull from the sun.

- Because each planet is also rotating on its axis, this spinning motion causes centrifugal force that is pushing the planet outward. The planets orbit is the exact spot where the gravitational pull from the sun meets the centrifugal force push from the planet spinning. The sun can’t pull any harder because the centrifugal force is pushing and the centrifugal force can’t push any harder because the gravitational pull is pulling.

* The following demonstrates this theory:
- Fasten a rubber band on an object like a key chain with several keys attached (weight is important) by slipping the rubberband onto the key chain like the keys were attached. The rubber band represents gravity. The mass of the object will determine the pull of the rubber band (like the mass of the planet determines the pull of the sun’s gravity).
- Holding tightly to the rubber band, twirl the object around (creating centrifugal force).
- The rubber band (gravity) will only allow the object to be pushed (by centrifugal force) so far.
- The spot where gravity no longer pulls and centrifugal force no longer pushes is the orbit of the object.
- If the twirling stops, the centrifugal force stops, and the object is pulled back in by the rubber band (gravity).

* * NOTE – If the rubber band breaks, you have now created a missile that can be dangerous. Use caution while demonstrating or allowing students to demonstrate. This may need to be done outside.

- The planets’ do not have a circular orbit, but rather revolve around the sun in an elliptical orbit. The orbits are all shaped like an oval, but they are not the same size or shape oval.

Day 7

1. Review planet characteristics by asking each planet group to tell five facts about their planet. Orally review gravitational pulls and orbits for Summative Assessment #1 to be given tomorrow. These are the final formative assessments. All misconceptions and incorrect data should be corrected through feedback given by the teacher.

2. Using name cards of the planets from the attached files, the class makes a scale model of the arrangement of the planets and their relative distance from the sun. This activity gives students a visual concept of the varied distances from the sun and really makes the point of how far some of the planets are. The scale, rounded to the nearest million km, would be the following:
Mercury – 0.5 units
Venus - 1 unit
Earth - 1.5 units
Mars – 2.5 units
Jupiter – 8 units
Saturn – 14.5 units
Uranus – 29 units
Neptune – 45 units
Pluto – 59 units

The units used will depend on the area available. Using inches, only 5 feet would be necessary for the display and a classroom wall or chalkboard could be used. Using feet as the unit, 60 feet is needed so the playground would need to be used and the name cards would need to be on stakes to drive into the ground. Try measuring the lunchroom wall and determining a unit of measure to fit the wall. A member of each planet group should place their planet at the appropriate distance from the sun on the display.

3. Play a question/answer game such as “Jeopardy” or “Who Want to be a Millionaire”. Individuals can be pitted against one another, or one research group can be pitted against another. Question cards are available from the attached file. These question cards review all questions that are on the assessment as well as many other facts.

* A optional review sheet is available from the attached file that can serve as a take-home review for the summative assessment tomorrow.

Day 8

1. Give Summative Assessment #1 “Planets in Orbit” available from the unit assessment package and linked in the Extension section.


1. The diagnostic assessment is given before giving instructions on the first day. The diagnostic is designed to address these two science standards, three mathematics standards, four language arts standards, and Goal 3 standards 1 and 2. The assessment tool is available from the unit plan's associated files that accompany the unit “Outer Space and Cyber Space”. (See Extensions for a link to the unit plan.)

2. Formative assessment is given daily as students discover planet characteristics and chart their findings. Affirmative and corrective feedback is given daily, both to individuals and to groups. See criteria and examples in the daily lessons.

3. The summative assessment is given at the completion of day 6 of this lesson plan. It is a constructed response assessment. The assessment tool is available from the unit plan's associated files that accompany the unit “Outer Space and Cyber Space”. Instructions for administering and scoring the assessment are included in the assessment file.


1. The Beacon Unit Plan associated with this lesson can be viewed by clicking on the link located at the top of this page or by using the following URL: Once you select the unit’s link, scroll to the bottom of the unit plan page to find the section, “Associated Files.” This section contains links to the Unit Plan Overview, Diagnostic and Summative Assessments, and other associated files (if any).

2. This is the science lesson plan that is part of the unit, Outer Space and Cyber Space. A math lesson plan, Not Your Average Planet and a language arts lesson plan, Taking Outer Space to Cyber Space are also available. All three lesson plans are correlated to infuse science into the other subject areas.

3. Use the formulas in the attached files to calculate students’ ages and weights on other planets.

4. As a check of student’s knowledge of the sizes of the planets in comparison to each other, put the following food objects on a table. Have the students examine the size of each object and decide which food item stands for which planet. The correlations are as follows: (Two versions are provided. Version 2 can then be placed on a bamboo skewer in the correct order from the sun.) VERSION 1: Jupiter – pumpkin; Saturn – acorn squash; Uranus – large onion; Neptune – large tomato; Earth – cherry tomato; Venus – walnut; Mars – large cranberry; Mercury – shelled peanut; and Pluto – small green pea.
VERSION 2: Jupiter – dried apricot; Uranus – large red grape; Saturn – dried prune; Neptune – mini marshmallow;
Earth – green grape; Venus – jellybean; Mars – small gumdrop; Mercury – ½ gumdrop; and Pluto – ½ raisin.

5. To assist students in better understanding the concept of a million, read the following book:
Schwart, David. <i&rt;How Much Is a Million?</i&rt; New York: Mulberry Books, 1993.
6. Read the book (and CD Rom) that actively engages students in discovering characteristics of our solar system.
Cole, Joanna, and Bruce Degen. <i&rt;The Magic Schoolbus, Lost In the Solar System</i&rt;. Scholastic.

7. Students write their own mnemonic using the first letter of the planets in order, starting with the sun. Select students to share their mnemonic. Give formative feedback as to how students are managing information using a mnemonic.

8. Using parent volunteers to assist students with research procedures is helpful.

9. To demonstate centrifugal force, swing a bucket half full of water in a circle. The water will remain in the bucket even though the bucket may be upside down if your swing the bucket fast enough. Also remind students of rides at the fair or amusement park that turn in such a fast circle that riders are forced against the back of the seat.

Web Links

This is a student-oriented site that has many of the planet characteristics for which students will be looking. This should be your first stop while researching the planets.
The World Almanac For Kids

This is a student-oriented site where students find the answers to their questions through a search engine.
Fact Monster

A space glossary is available through Fact Monster.
Space Glossary

The Nine Planets site is a multimedia site with a wealth of information about our solar system. This is an excellect reference site.
The Nine Planets

Welcome to the Planets is a NASA site that has great pictures and much information.
Welcome to the Planets

MSN Learning and Research - Encarta is an online encyclopedia that has a search function for specific questions asked by students.
MSN Learning and Research - Encarta

A photo of Panama City, FL and surrounding area, taken from a space shuttle is available here.

Think Quest is a student oriented site that has information about most any subject. This particular URL has information about gravity and obits.
Think Quest

Part of the Smithsonian and is online here.
The National Air and Space Museum

One part of the NASM that explores the planets and space.
Exploring the Planets, Cyber-Center

Since this is a news site, the information may change daily.
Yahooligans, Astronomy and Space News

This particular part of ThinkQuest is a valuable research site for students.

Attached Files

Planet Characteristics - Teacher Information     File Extension: pdf

Student Data Chart     File Extension: pdf

Labels for wall chart     File Extension: pdf

Planet Mnemonic     File Extension: pdf

Cards for review activity     File Extension: pdf

Review for assessment     File Extension: pdf

How to figure your weight and age on other planets     File Extension: pdf

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