Project Description

This project teaches students how professional astronomers map the objects in our solar system. Students learn the relationship between 2D and 3D maps, and between terrestrial coordinate systems and celestial coordinate systems. Using SDSS data, they create a map of the asteroids in our Solar System as seen from Earth, and measure the angle of the ecliptic. They then use this new knowledge to work out the cause of the seasons for themselves.


  • Objects in the universe can be mapped by their celestial coordinates: Right Ascension (RA) and Declination (Dec)
  • A larger sample size of data provides a clearer understanding of a phenomenon
  • Objects in our solar system, such as planets and asteroids, orbit the Sun in the same plane
  • From the perspective of Earth, this plane (called the ecliptic) appears tilted; this is because Earth itself is tilted on its axis with respect to the plane of the Solar System
  • The seasons we experience on Earth are the result of differences in the angle of incidence of sunlight at different times of year in the Northern and Southern hemispheres

Target Audience

  • Middle School
  • High School
  • Undergraduate Introductory Astronomy

Classroom Time

All teachers and professors are advised to work through the lesson first on your own–the times provided are rough estimations that may vary.

  • Middle school: four 45-minute class periods
  • High school: three 45-minute class periods
  • Community college or college: one three-hour lab period

Real World Relevance

We all frequently encounter and use maps – from the road atlas in the car to interactive web-based mapping programs like Mapquest or Google Maps. Learning about how objects are positioned on a map, and the limitations of different ways of representing location, provides a deeper understanding of this common tool.

The seasons are a fundamental natural phenomenon that dictate the cycles of nature and of our lives. Nevertheless, students and the public have many misconceptions about the causes of the seasons. When graduating seniors at Harvard were quizzed about the cause of the seasons for the film A Private Universe, only a few responded correctly. By inquiring into this phenomenon for themselves, students should acquire a new understanding of the natural world around them.

The project also exposes students to a simple programming language for data mining, Structured Query Language (SQL) on a conceptual level, without requiring that they learn its intricacies.

Worksheet and Sample Solutions

Download the project worksheet PDF.

Student responses may vary; these sample solutions are only a guideline for appropriate responses. Questions are designed to be open-ended, to require thought, and to encourage students to discover concepts for themselves.

Much of this project also requires students to make graphs, either in graphing software like Excel or on paper. While all student graphs won’t look exactly the same, each should contain at least 100 points, and should demonstrate the pattern that they’re looking for. Their measurements of the ecliptic accurate to within reasonable limitations of using a protractor – about 5 or 10 degrees from the true value.

To get sample solutions for this project, contact the Voyages Help Desk.