PETA-TeachKind free pilot program - August 2023


Forums / Earth and Space Science / Figuring Out How Big Space Is

Earth and Space Science

Figuring Out How Big Space Is

Author Post
Veronica Winegarner Veronica Winegarner 1870 Points

As I work my way through the Universe SciPack, I keep trying not to get lost as to how far away various objects in space really are. I decided to try to put the distance between the Earth and the moon in some kind of perspective. The fact that the moon is about 240,000 miles from Earth didn’t really mean anything to me until I tried to compare it to some distances I do know, like the fact that the Earth is about 24,000 miles in circumference. Doing the math, I found the distance to the moon is about the same as circling the Earth ten times or crossing the United States about eighty times. To make the travel even more real, I applied the distance to a flight I have made a number of times, from Honolulu to Los Angeles (about 2500 miles). The distance from Earth to the moon would require 96 flights or 48 round trips (about 5000 miles each). That seemed so amazing that I wanted to figure out the distance between the Earth and Sun. The sun is about 93 million miles away, so I divided the distance by round trips between Honolulu and Los Angeles. By that measure the sun is 18,600 round trips away. If that wasn’t bad enough, I decided to find out how long it would take to reach the moon and the sun at the speed of an average airliner. According to the internet, airliners fly at about 600 miles per hour. At 600 mph, the moon is 400 hours away. That’s 16.67 days of flying. The time to cover the distance to the sun is just astounding. At the same speed, the sun is 155,000 hours away, and that would be 6,458.33 days, which is 17.7 years. From this SciPack and my calculations, I realized two things. First, saying that space is big doesn’t even come close. There’s no word I can think of that really says how big space is. Second, using the speed of light may be convenient for scientists, but I never got how fast that really is, and I never did really recognize just how big space is. I also remember hearing somewhere that it takes light eight minutes to reach Earth from the sun. That makes the sun seem close. But when I calculated how long it would take to fly to the sun at familiar speeds compared to familiar distances, I think I finally realized in a small way just how far away the sun and the moon are. I don’t see how I can even begin to understand the distance from here to the nearest star or the next galaxy. Anyway, measuring out distances in space with a human scale was a useful exercise. P.S. I found this website very useful when I was looking for information about the solar system:

Nancy Iaukea Nancy Iaukea 2710 Points

Veronica, Thank you for sharing - these facts put in real terms will really help my students grasp concepts that are just not easy to conceptualize in normal scientific terms. You helped me remember a demonstration that I learned a few years ago with a roll of toilet paper to show distances between the sun and planets. It stretches all the way across our cafeteria. It also is a great visual. I will try to track it down and post it here to this thread. Thanks again for your great idea and hard work!

Betty Paulsell Betty Paulsell 48560 Points

Veronica, I also want to thank you for figuring out all the math for travel in the solar system. I have several teacher friends I plan to share this with.

Veronica Winegarner Veronica Winegarner 1870 Points

Aloha, Nancy and Betty-- Thank you for your responses to my post. I just got carried away with a calculator, and then, I started to have some fun. :) Anyway, I look forward to hearing about the toilet roll demonstration--I'm very curious. I hope my calculations are accurate so that when you share them, they still make sense. Let me know how it comes out. Take care, and thank you again. Veronica

Veronica Winegarner Veronica Winegarner 1870 Points

Dear Tina-- Aloha, and thank you for the links and information. I will check them out later this week, but I am looking forward to all of them. Take care. Veronica

Juliet Kim Juliet Kim 2340 Points

Thank you for doing all those calculations! I really enjoy teaching my students about the solar system but I find it very difficult to explain just how vast the universe is. Even distances between objects within our solar system is very difficult to explain. I like how you made such a mind-boggling subject (distances between objects in space) understandable. I also agree with you that traveling at the speed of light is also hard to imagine. I was trying to explain to my students that when you look up at the night sky and see stars, you are actually looking at the past because of how long the light from the star took to travel to us. Also, thank you for posting that link. I enjoyed looking through the high-quality photographs and I will definitely be using it in my class to teach my students about objects within the solar system.

Katarina Lincalis Katarina Lincalis 2340 Points

Those calculations are a great way to put the idea of how big space is into perspective for students. As a previous poster mentioned earlier, the tiolet roll demonstration works really well. I am pre-service teacher and we did this activity last week in our "Teaching Science in the Elementary Schools" course. Here is how it went: In groups of 3-4, we were given markers, a roll of tiolet paper, and a list of the planets and their distances from the Sun in millions of miles. Knowing the roll of toilet paper had 100 sheets, our instructions were as follows: develop a scale model of the solar system. The activity was great because it required a good deal of cooperation from group members and it incorporated some basic math skills into a science lesson. However, because the distances were in millions of miles, I could see how the conversions would be difficult for younger grades. I think for younger students it would work as a class project where the teacher does the conversions with the class and then asks volunteers to count out the correct number of sheets of toilet paper and to mark each planet. Anyways, the activity was really fun and at the end, each group lined their models up in the hallway. Each group (interestingly enough) had used a different scale to convert so one group only used out 20 of the 100 sheets while another group calculated it so they used 99 out of 100. Our professor noted that the longer models better emphasized exactly how far apart the planets are and how big our solar system is. Again, if doing this with actual school-aged children, giving them the scale you want them to use may be helpful. Overall, I really recommend this activity to demonstrate the scale of solar system!

Veronica Winegarner Veronica Winegarner 1870 Points

Dear Juliet and Katarina-- Thank you for your enthusiastic response, Juliet. I'm glad those numbers work for you. They still amaze me. The toilet roll demonstration sounds very good again. I didn't know the number of squares on a roll. Is that standard? My husband has a copy of The Stars: A New Way to See Them by H.A. Rey, and in that book, the author indicates the relative sizes of the planets and distances from the sun in another neat way. Rey points out that a beach ball on the goal line of a football field and a pea on the eighth line out (eighty yards away) is approximately accurate of the distance and sizes of the Earth and the Sun. On that scale, Pluto would be 1.75 miles from the beach ball. You probably remember H.A. Rey as the creator of Curious George, but this book of stars is really handy, too. Veronica

Nohelani Kobayashi Nohelani Kunishige 2060 Points

Hey Veronica! Wow! You really did get carried away with the calculations! Thank you for doing all of that. I am actually in the process of trying to teach my students about space, since we were talking about the rover landing on Mars. When I was going through the scipack, I was also getting a bit confused and lost, because I personally don't know how bg space really is. This must be really fun to go over with the little kids, since it's probably something they never thought about before. Also, as I was reading on, I really like the activity on the toilet paper roll. It seems like a great class activity to do with the students and everyone can be involved or work in small groups. I am planning on talking about space again with the students, so hopefully I can find time to include this activity. Thank you so much for your awesome ideas and thoughts everyone!

Kehau Samuelu DonnaLynn Samuelu 3485 Points

Hi Veronica, Now you need to write a book that shares all of these calculations and makes it easier for students to see and really grasp the distances throughout space. Your ideas have already sparked great discussion and activities! Thank you for sharing that. I would like to share your passion with my K students. How you did these calculations because you got "carried away". Thank you

Arleen Bourcier Arleen Bourcier 1570 Points

Hi Veronica, Your calculations are so interesing. I would never have taken the initiative to figure it out. Just a few days ago I read a book about the moon to my Kidergarten students as we finished up the unit about celestial objects found in the day and night sky. There is no way for students, especially at the kindergarten age, to put into perspective the sizes of the earth and planets and the distance from here to the moon, etc. It would be wonderful to use your calculations to give a little more relevancy to the distance of "space." Thanks for sharing your work.

Post Reply

Forum content is subject to the same rules as NSTA List Serves. Rules and disclaimers