Lesson Plan


By the end of this project, the student will be able to:

  • Use celestial coordinates to identify planets, asteroids, and other cosmic objects
  • Find and explain patterns and trends in data
  • Create maps of the positions of asteroids in our solar system using real data
  • Explain how the Earth’s tilt and movement conspire to produce seasons


Very little background knowledge is required for this project. Students should know the basic layout of our Solar System, that planets orbit the sun in elliptical paths, and that there is a belt of asteroids between Jupiter and Mars.

Students should understand what a graph and a coordinate system are. They should be comfortable reading the axis of a graph and plotting data points.

Students should also be comfortable using a web browser, and, if you decide to do the graphing portions of the project in a graphing or spreadsheet program, they should be familiar with that program as well. If you are using Excel, you may want to have students complete the SkyServer Graphing Data Tutorial to prepare to use this tool.


  • SDSS – The Sloan Digital Sky Survey
  • ordered pair – two numbers used to assign location
  • Equator – an imaginary line encircling the globe and equidistant from both poles
  • longitude – a measure of East/West position on the Earth relative to the Equator
  • latitude – a measure of North/South position on the Earth
  • Celestial Sphere – imaginary sphere projected out from the Earth
  • North Celestial Pole – extension of the Earth’s North Pole out into space
  • Right ascension (RA) – the East/West coordinate of a cosmic object in relation to the Celestial Equator (comparable to longitude)
  • Declination (Dec) – the North/South coordinate of a cosmic object (comparable to latitude)
  • asteroid – a small body that orbits the sun; most are found in a belt between Mars and Jupiter.
  • SQL – Structured Query Language, a computer language that retrieves data from a database
  • HTML – HyperText Markup Language, used to create websites
  • CSV – Comma Separated Variables, a file format in which numbers are demarcated by commas
  • orbit – the curved path that one object takes around another due to a central force like gravity
  • ecliptic – the tilted plane in which objects in our solar system appear to orbit relative to Earth
  • hemisphere – half of the Earth (as cut by the Equator)
  • axis – an imaginary line around which an object spins
  • tilt – the angle between a planet’s axis and its orbital plane (for Earth, 23.44 degrees)


Students should work in groups of two or three. Each group will need a computer with a web browser, preferably connected to a printer.

Each group of students will need the following materials for each activity (links indicate files that can be downloaded as PDF documents or JPEG images):

Activity 1: Coordinate Systems

When groups have finished taping their Earth maps into a cylinder, it should look like this (click for a larger version):


Activity 2: Mapping the Solar System

  • Large, blank sheet of white paper
  • Marker (to mark locations of planets on the graph)
  • Asteroids Data Excel template (optional)
  • Asteroids Data Excel template for Macintosh (optional)
  • Full-page map of asteroids, printed in black and white on a transparency.
  • Scissors (one per group)
  • Tape (one per group)
  • Marker (one per group)

When groups have finished taping their sky maps into a cylinder, it should look like this (click for a larger version):


Activity 3: Earth, Sun, and Seasons

  • Protractor
  • Marker

To prepare for this project, you should print out copies of all materials and set up a large graph for activity 2. Check to make sure that computers are set up properly, and that you have the link to the project ready to provide to students.

Also, you are strongly advised to try the activity beforehand.

Because this project involves maps and tape, and materials that carry over from activity to activity, you may want to collect the students’ work at the end of each day and return it on the next. That way, no group will be left without materials if a member is absent.

Classroom Time

The project can be divided into four 45-minute class periods or three class periods for more advanced students (one activity per class).

Procedure (Students work in groups of 2 or 3)

Activity 1: Coordinate Systems

  1. Divide the students into groups, and direct them to the project home page
  2. Pass out: Solar System worksheet, color copies of the world map, sheets of graph paper for Explore 2 (if students are not using Excel)
  3. Spot check students’ work as they progress. Assist slower groups.
  4. Collect group materials

Activity 2: Mapping the Solar System

  1. Set up large graph at the front of classroom for Explore 1
  2. Divide the students into groups, and direct them to the website
  3. Return collected group materials
  4. Pass out: graph paper for Explore 3 (if students are not using Excel), and the transparent graph of asteroids
  5. If you would like your students to use their own Excel graphs for the activity where they fold the map into a cylinder, be sure to tell them to be sure that their graphs are twice as wide as they are high, so that they will properly fold up into a cylinder
  6. To save time, you may want students to use pre-formatted Excel templates to make their graphs. These templates are set so that they are the right height and width:
  7. You may need to explain what computer code is for this activity and to offer assistance with the Solar System Search Form tool
  8. Spot check students’ work as they progress. Assist slower groups.
  9. Collect group materials

Activity 3: Earth, Sun, and Seasons

  1. Return collected group materials
  2. Pass out protractors
  3. Record student responses to Explore 1 at the front of the class
  4. Spot check students’ work as they progress
  5. If you use the extension, you may need to walk the students through the Solar System Search Form
  6. Allow time for students to exchange papers and assess each other’s explanations. Explain that peer review and collaboration are important parts of scientific research.
  7. Collect worksheets and materials

Extension activities

The extension activity adds an extra level of complexity by having the student consider another coordinate system – ecliptic longitude and latitude. To complete this activity, students will once again need to use the Solar System Search Form

A quick and useful homework assignment is to have students summarize what they have learned from the project, list what they have learned previously that helped them understand the project, and to state what they liked and what they did not like about the project. Get the activity as a PDF.

Few or no computer classrooms

This activity requires the use of a computer. However, students work in groups of 2 to 3, and only one computer is required per group. If computers are available to the students at home or in a library, the activity could be introduced in class and continued outside the classroom. For classrooms with only 1 or 2 computers, student groups could take turns at the computer – cycling between the computer and written portions of the lessons.

Home schoolers

The project can be done by an individual rather than a group. It would be best if a student working alone could exchange his or her results with another student to check the work.