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Paper Plate Education
"Serving the Universe on a Paper Plate"

Activity: Saturn's Rings

Plate courtesy of April Whitt.

The following text is excerpted from GLPA Proceedings, 1992, p. 84-85.  Used with permission:

Material:     paper plate


Background:  Every 14 years Saturn's rings seem to disappear!  This was an embarrassment to Galileo as he observed the rings in his telescope, made notes...and months later tried to share his observation with another scientist...but they weren't there!  A year or so later, it was confirmed as they seemed to return.

Activity:  Fold a paper plate in half.  Fold into quarters, then unfold to the half.  Starting about 1/2 inch from the edge, cut parallel to the perimeter stopping about 1/4 inch from the fold line making it into quarters.  Unfold the plate and fold the outer ring until it stands out at right angles to the plates.  Mark one end of the first fold line as north and the other end as south.  The plate represents the disk of Saturn with the rings going around it.  Pretend your head is the sun and hold Saturn out at arms length making it go around the sun.  Saturn's axis is tilted 26 degrees from the plane of its orbit (compared to earth at 23 and 1/2 degrees...about the same).  Keep the axis of Saturn pointed the same direction (imagine a distant star) and you will see the north side of the rings, then the edge of the rings, then the south side, the edge, and the north side again.  It takes Saturn 29 years to orbit the sun.  Therefore we see the rings on edge every 14 years (1995 recently).  The rings are so thin they seem to disappear...just as a flat paper plate does when seen edge on!

Assessment:  Did the student make the model correctly?  Does the student hold the axis toward a distant star (rather than rotate it toward the sun as it moves around its orbit)?  Does the student keep it tilted the same?  Can the student describe what happens?  What is similar about Saturn and its rings and Earth and its seasons? [Tilt] What is different? [Time...14 earth years for one summer on Saturn!]

Extension:  Find pictures of Saturn and when they were taken.  Hold the model at the correct position for the time the picture was taken.  Observe Saturn and the rings during the next several years and keep a journal drawing what you see.

Contributed by Wayne James.


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