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

Activity: The Dynamic Solar System

Saturn_ring_pixR.jpg (18799 bytes)  Comet__tails_pixR.jpg (40203 bytes)  Jupiter_pixR.jpg (10746 bytes)
Plates courtesy of April Whitt.

 Belorussian translation, courtesy of Paul Bukhovko

Give each team one half of a paper plate that is folded over so it looks like a quarter plate.  Each team opens their half-plate to see the name of the planet they're supposed to depict.  Each team then colors a paper plate front and back to look like their planet.  Provide some posters or images of planets they can refer to as well  (real color, not false color). The ringed planets have rings cut into them.  Comets are two plates: one plate whole with a nucleus and the other plate cut in a double spiral for the tail (yellow dust tail and blue gas tail).  

Discuss with students their existing knowledge or convictions about the planets and concepts like rotation, poles, equator, revolution/year length. Take the students outside with planet plates in hand.  Establish a scale by creating a story.  For example, suggest a cosmic giant can step from the sun to the earth in one step (1 A.U.).  Pace off the planet distances from the sun with each team of students, starting with Pluto and leaving the teacher back with the other students.  As each team reaches its distance from the sun, the students stop, turn to face the sun and hold their planet plate up high.

Note how far apart the outer solar system planets really are (or, conversely, how close the inner ones are), and why it takes spacecraft so long to get from one to the next.  Comets are last. They start at the very outer edges of the solar system, race toward the sun as their tails lengthen, and hurtle back out again.

Contributed by April Whitt.

GLPA Proceedings, 1999, p. 36.

For more pictures of children constructing plates see the Dynamic Planets picture gallery.

Paper Plate Ed says...

Multiple websites that offer scale models of the solar system are listed at http://www.vendian.org/mncharity/dir3/solarsystem.   For example, one  website that allows you to establish your own reference size for a scale model of the Solar System can be found at http://www.exploratorium.edu/ronh/solar_system/.

For example, if the earth were a paper plate (about 9 inches, or 228 mm) the rest of the system would be scaled as shown on the sample table below.  The diameter of the sun would be equivalent to 983 inches, or about 109 paper plates placed end to end.  A standard-sized package of paper plates contains 100 pieces.  From that large sun, the plate-sized earth would be in orbit over 8,802 feet away.   Some values on the table below have been rounded off for simplicity.

Body Actual Body
Scaled Body
Scaled Body
Actual Orbit
Scaled Orbit
(ft )
Sun 1391900 983 25000      
Mercury 4866 3.4 87 57950000 3410 1040
Venus 12106 8.5 217 108110000 6360 1940
Earth 12742 9 230 149570000 8800 2680
Mars 6760 5 120 227840000 13410 4090
Jupiter 139516 98 2500 778140000 4580 13960
Saturn 116438 82 2088 1427000000 84000 25600
Uranus 46940 33 842 2870300000 168900 51490
Neptune 45432 32 815 4499900000 264830 80720
Pluto 2274 1.6 41 5913000000 348000 106070

[Note: The table above is adapted from Ron Hipschman's page with permission.  To alter input values on the table and recalculate the distances, connect directly to http://www.exploratorium.edu/ronh/solar_system/.]


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