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Planet Size and Distance: Solar System Bead Activity

Planet Size and Distance: Solar System Bead Activity This close-up view of a portion of the solar system string bead shows the sun, Mercury, Venus and Earth. The entire string bead extends about 5 meters (about 16 feet).

January 12, 2010

by Paula Partida

Paula Partida runs JPL's Educator Resource Center (ERC) in Pomona, Calif. Classroom teachers, informal educators and other visitors to the ERC get one-on-one time with Paula while she shows them the free resources and activities offered by NASA/JPL.

One of my favorite activities to demonstrate with educators at the ERC is the solar system bead activity. We make the string solar system together and teachers can take it back to their classrooms. The goal of the activity is for students to get a better understanding of the distances between the planets and the vastness of the solar system.

To convey the size of the solar system, we convert  astronomical units (the distance from the Sun to Earth) to a 10-centimeter (4-inch) scale. Colored beads are attached to the string to represent planets.

The final product is about 5 meters (16 feet) long and makes a nice wall decoration and visual aid for teaching solar system distances. It also works with a wide age-range (students in grades 1 through 8).  Educators can have students make their own solar system model to take home and share with families. 

For the full description of the activity go to

Classroom tips:

-- For younger students, you may want to pre-cut the string and place a set of solar system beads into a plastic zip-lock bag (one set per student).  A pre-measured marking grid can be placed on a table top for students.

-- Some elementary students may have trouble tying the knots so be prepared to work your fingers.

-- For older students, make this a hands-on math activity by having them make the conversions from astronomical units to the 10-centimeter (4-inch) scale.