A Model of Saturn

In this guide, you’ll learn how to create a model of Saturn and its rings. Teach your students how to create a scientific model and explore the features of Saturn such as its rings and shadows. Students will also discover how light travels and use computational thinking to calculate sizes for their models.

Thanks to The Astronomical Society of the Pacific for creating this activity. Check out their website in the link for the full guide.

Grades: 7-9

Introduction to the Activity

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific

*Link not active as of July 4, 2019, I am searching for an alternative*

In this activity, students will conduct an experiment to create a mathematically accurate model of Saturn and its rings. Students will need to be able to calculate the radius and circumference of a sphere in order to create this model.

Conceptual Background

Throughout recent history, four NASA spacecraft have visited Saturn: Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, and Cassini. While the images they have sent can tell us a lot about Saturn’s rings, not much is known about why they formed in the first place. The rings are about 400,000 kilometers (240,000 miles) wide and as little as 100 meters (330 feet) thick. It is thought that between 500 to 1000 rings that surround the planet made of icy rock. Saturn is also surrounded by more than 60 moons. The planet has been known to scientists for hundreds of years, and is the farthest planet visible to the human eye.

Want more information? Check out NASA’s detailed descriptions.

What You’ll Need

  • photocopies of Voyager image of Saturn
  • photocopies of handout (click here for printable pdf handout)
  • blank acetates or transparencies
  • scissors
  • paint (pearl, beige, pale yellow, cream-colored, gold, or silver)
  • glitter paint, glitter glue, or loose glitter (optional)
  • paint brushes (half-inch, 1-centimeter)
  • toothpicks (preferably clear plastic)
  • flashlight or other point-like light source

What to Do

Check out the detailed instructions from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the handout they made here. I’ll include the directions on how to make the model of Saturn to give you an idea of how it works. Their page also includes an activity for casting shadows on Saturn which you should check out on their page.

For older students: Go over the handout. Explain that they will have to calculate the widths of the rings of their grapefruit Saturn so that their models will be proportioned correctly. The proportionality equation is:

So, the width of the model ring is:

Radius of Saturn / width of ring = radius of grapefruit / width of model ring

Radius of grapefruit x width of ring / radius of Saturn

The radius of Saturn is 60,330 kilometers. The radius of the 28.5-centimeter grapefruit is 4.5 centimeters. For larger or smaller grapefruits, use the formula:

radius = circumference ÷ 2 ÷ 3.1416.

For younger students: Write the pre-calculated widths of Saturn’s rings on the board (see chart below) and have students copy the numbers onto their handouts. These figures apply to the 28.5-centimeter grapefruit:

Feature Scaled width (cm)
‘A’ ring 1.1
Cassini division 0.3
‘B’ ring 1.9
‘C’ ring 1.3
Space between Saturn and ‘C’ ring 1.0

NGSS Connections

Analyze and interpret data to determine scale properties of objects in the solar system.

ESS1.B: Earth and the Solar System

  • The solar system consists of the sun and a collection of objects, including planets, their moons, and asteroids that are held in orbit around the sun by its gravitational pull on them.

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