Modeling the Solar System

Solar System: It’s Out of This World! Today’s lesson allowed us to explore our solar system! We learned about the eight planets in our solar system and how to remember their order using a mnemonic device (a tool to aid in remembering)– My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Noodles: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.  We also discussed why Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Two scale models were explored to reinforce the vastness of space. The relative size of the eight planets was emphasized using spheres ranging in size from a marble (Mercury) to an exercise ball (Jupiter). This helped us to get a better understanding of how the size of each planet compares to the others. It was amazing to see just how big Jupiter is compared to all of the other planets! To help us visualize the distances of the planets from the Sun, we used a customized (and very long!) tape measure, or a strip of Lego tape to represent the distances in the solar system, as measured in astronomical units (AU). We then laid the planets out to create a distance model. Students were surprised to see how close the inner (terrestrial) planets were to each other, and how spread out the Gas Giants are — in addition to being so far from the Sun. Students also discovered why we need two models to describe the Solar System. The planets are very big, but the empty space between them is a whole lot bigger! To get a feel for these differences of scale, check out this scrollable online model of the Solar System: And if you’d like to build a solar system model of your own, check out this link for help with the calculations:

El Sistema Solar  Conocemos muy bien los planetas de nuestro sistema solar: Mercurio, Venus, Tierra, Marte, Júpiter, Saturno, Urano y Neptuno. Pero, ¿sabemos realmente cómo se ve nuestro sistema solar? En clases, utilizamos dos modelos a escala para visualizar de mejor manera nuestro sistema solar. Usando pelotas de distintos tamaños, comparamos los tamaños de los planetas más cercanos al Sol, con los tamaños de los planetas más lejanos al Sol. Por ejemplo, la Tierra fue representada por una pelota de ping pong, y Júpiter por una pelota de 18 pulgadas. Esto nos permitió entender cómo se relacionan los tamaños de los planetas. Para lograr visualizar cuán separados se encuentran los planetas entre sí y entre el sol, creamos un modelo a escala de distancias. Para esto, utilizamos un rollo de cinta marcada; estas marcas representan “unidades astronómicas” (UA). Primero, los estudiantes, hipotetizaron sobre dónde situar los planetas respecto al Sol (en un extremo de la cinta) y Pluto (el otro extremo de la cinta). Luego, repitieron el ejercicio, pero esta vez utilizaron una escala real para crear un modelo preciso. Los estudiantes se sorprendieron mucho al visualizar lo “cerca” que están unos de otros los planetas que están más cerca del Sol; en contraste a lo “separados” que están los planetas más lejos del Sol.  

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Dr. Maureen Griffin

Maureen earned a Ph.D. in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 2003. While at Penn, she developed a novel micro-mechanical technique called micropipette peeling to investigate the role of muscle cell adhesion in normal and diseased skeletal muscle cells. After graduating, Maureen worked full time as a post-doctoral researcher and then a staff scientist a SelectX Pharmaceuticals. She joined the teaching staff in 2008 and was excited to be made an executive staff member in 2009. Maureen also continued to consult part time for SelectX until her daughter's birth in 2009; now she is focused on Science from Scientists and, of course, her children. Maureen uses her spare time to read, blog, cook, and renovate her house.

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