Jewel of the Solar System: Part 1 – What Do I See When I Picture Saturn?
In this activity, split into two approximately 40-minute sessions, youth will:
- Create and decorate their own Saturn science journals and then make observations about Saturn and NASA's Cassini-Huygens mission to record in their journals.
- Draw and share what they picture in their minds when they hear “Saturn,” and add labels and captions to their drawings.
- Closely observe pictures of Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft, and the Huygens Probe and write about what they notice. In teams, they also discuss and record what they wonder about. Practicing skills of careful observation, team discussion, and development of questions prepares students to develop “habits of mind” of scientists or engineers. Their writing forms the basis for “claims” and “evidence” as projects and presentations are formulated.
- Make and eventually take home their own decorated Saturn Discovery Log.
- Activity Goals: practice organizing and presenting their thinking using writing and illustrations; learn to observe carefully and record observations and questions; and begin to understand the need to support claims with evidence from reliable sources.
Note: This activity is part of the Jewel of the Solar System activity guide, which includes:
- Room with tables and chairs
- Write the following prompt on the chalkboard or chart paper: "Draw everything that you picture when you hear the word 'Saturn.' Add labels to your drawing."
- Find a current newspaper or magazine article that has an illustration with text to use as an example to show the children.
- Print and cut out the Saturn and Cassini-Huygens images (or choose your own).
- Create seven charts by attaching the images to the tops of sheets of chart paper. Using a large marker, divide each sheet of chart paper into three columns and label each column as follows: What I Notice, What I Know, What I Wonder
- Place charts and images in seven locations around the room. Decide what signal you will use to have the students rotate to new images and how you will make sure the rotation goes smoothly.
Equity/Leveling the Playing Field
- This program unit has as much idea-sharing and writing as hands-on activities. Students will be asked to publicly share what they know, so it is important to create an environment where everyone’s ideas are important and valued.
- Remember that writing may slow the process for some students. Be sure to allow enough time for everyone to contribute to the team.
- A fun way to introduce this activity is to show the students the live Cassini Status that tells where the Cassini spacecraft is now. The NASA Eyes simulator can also be used. See “Taking Science to the Next Step” under Extensions for more info.
- The format for the Saturn Discovery Log is a suggestion. Any folder or science notebook can hold students’ writing and worksheets in an organized way.
- Select one image to observe for a few moments yourself, and jot down your own thoughts on a separate piece of paper -- both for what you notice and for what you wonder about. Model the learning process by participating in this activity with your own questions and writing to emulate the science process of inquiry. Your questions spark students' curiosity!
- If students "know" something about Saturn, ask how they know it to support the idea of the importance of evidence to support claims. A “word wall” -- a systematically organized collection of related words displayed in the classroom -- featuring “claims” and “evidence” might be helpful.
- Encourage students to take risks in questioning.
- Help students develop observational skills by encouraging them to notice the fine details.
- Keep the images and charts the students complete for them to later add more during Activity 3 – Discovering Saturn: The Real Lord of the Rings.
Saturn is the sixth planet from the sun and is often called, "The Jewel of the Solar System” because of its beautiful rings. It is the second largest planet in our solar system. Saturn is named for the Roman god of agriculture.
The spacecraft Cassini-Huygens (pronunciation: cuh SEEN ee / HOY gens) was launched from Earth in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in July 2004. It is exploring the mysteries of Saturn, its rings and many moons; it has been zooming past Saturn and its moons regularly since 2004. The Huygens Probe landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in January 2005. The Cassini spacecraft will continue to orbit Saturn and send back data until September 15, 2017, when it will dive into Saturn's atmosphere, sending science data for as long as its small thrusters can keep the spacecraft's antenna pointed at Earth. Soon after, Cassini will burn up and disintegrate like a meteor. Explore more information about Saturn and the Cassini mission on NASA’s Cassini mission website.
Science is a way of thinking and doing things, called inquiry. Identifying questions forms the basis for inquiry throughout this program unit.
- Engineer: A person who applies scientific knowledge to solving problems in the real world.
- Spacecraft: A vehicle designed for travel in space beyond Earth’s atmosphere, to other planets or moons, or in orbit around Earth. Spacecraft can carry people or be robotic.
Session 1 - Creating Saturn Discovery Logs (40 minutes)
- Read the following paragraph:
Imagine space, magnificent space. Now imagine our solar system with a blazing Sun in the center. Spinning around it are beautiful planets. One of these planets is Earth. Another is Saturn, and a spacecraft is flying through space to find out more about this mysterious planet.
- If applicable, explain that for the next few sessions (days, weeks, etc.), students will be learning about Saturn and its moons, and the Cassini-Huygens mission.
- (Optional) Leader Reading: Read aloud all of page 2 and the first paragraph of page 3 from the mini-book “Introducing Saturn,” showing the illustrations.
- Tell the students that they will be keeping all of their work during this entire program in their own Saturn Discovery Log, just as scientists keep journals or blogs to record their thoughts. Today, they will make the cover for their Saturn Discovery Log and write their first log entry.
- Pass out construction paper, sheets of white paper, and crayons, colored pencils and/or markers.
- Ask the group to fold the construction paper in half to make a folder that will hold 8.5 x 11 inch paper.
- Ask students to write “Saturn Discovery Log” and their name on the front cover of the construction paper folder. As students work, check that everyone has written his or her name and today’s date on the cover.
- Get students thinking and drawing about the planet Saturn, with the following conversation guide:
- Circulate around the room, ask students questions about what they are drawing, and encourage them to add more detail to their labels and captions.
- When they have finished their drawings, give students a few minutes to decorate the front cover of their Saturn Discovery Log. Then have the students put their drawings inside the log. Collect the logs.
Now it’s time to make your first log entry. Many scientists log their thoughts and questions every day. It’s part of recording their journey to discovery. Sometimes they draw pictures and illustrations and label key things about them.
You can look at these sample news articles to see how items can be documented and labeled to make them clear to others. (Show the students the sample(s) you’ve collected.)
For so many centuries, people have looked up into the sky but have not really known what Saturn looked like. Scientists wondered a lot of things about the planet. Then they were able to look through telescopes and see the planets more clearly. Now that NASA has sent a robotic spacecraft all the way to Saturn, we have views that early scientists never thought possible.
What do you picture of when you hear the word “Saturn”? Take 15 minutes, and draw a picture that reflects the word “Saturn” to you! Be sure to label the parts you think need explanation.
Session 2 - What I Notice and Wonder (40 minutes)
- (Optional) Leader Reading: Read aloud page 4 from the mini-book “Introducing Saturn,” showing the illustrations.
- Ask the children to count off using the numbers 1 through 7 to create seven teams, and assign one team to each image. For the leader’s knowledge and use, the images are described here:
- Image 1 - Saturn image by the Cassini spacecraft
- Image 2 - Saturn system, collage of natural-color Cassini images of Saturn and its moons. The moons shown are (starting at upper left and proceeding clockwise) Dione, Titan, Enceladus (directly in front of Titan), Rhea (partially in front of Titan), and Helene.
- Image 3 - Cassini spacecraft approaching Saturn artist concept
- Image 4 - Cassini launch
- Image 5 - Drawing showing Cassini's path to Saturn, including “swing-bys” that use the gravity and motion of planets to alter spacecraft path and speed.
- Image 6 - Artist concept showing the time sequence of the Huygens Probe as it descends to Titan’s surface
- Image 7 - Drawing of Saturn ring particles
Now we’ll begin learning about the planet Saturn and the Cassini-Huygens mission by looking at some images and making careful observations about them. Note there are seven different images around the room. Your team will start by studying one of the images, discussing it, and writing down only those things you notice from looking at the image. Only include observations and claims that you can support with evidence you see in the image. (Some examples include: "I notice the planet has rings." "I notice a dark space in the rings." "I notice there appear to be bands of different colors on the planet.")
Write your team’s observations in the “What I Notice” column of the chart paper next to the image.
Scientists work as teams in all stages of a space mission, so as you discuss the image, make sure that everyone on your team contributes observations and questions.
Next, think about what questions you have about what’s pictured in the image. Write those down in the “What I Wonder” column. (Following from the previous examples, you could wonder why there are different colors on the planet, and what the weather is like on Saturn. For example: "I wonder what would cause the dark space in the rings." "I wonder who or what took this picture of Saturn." "I wonder if it is a real picture.")
Leave the “What I Know” column blank for now.
I’ll give you a signal when it’s time for your team to move to the next image and add to what the previous team wrote.
- Jim Frautnick of Cassini mission planning:
- Dr. Bonnie Buratti, investigation scientist for the Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument on Cassini:
I wonder how thick Saturn’s rings are.
I wonder what will happen to the spacecraft as it passes through the rings.
I wonder what causes storms in Saturn’s atmosphere.
I wonder if we will get some good pictures showing the particles in the rings.
I wonder what the mission probe will find out about the moon Titan.
I wonder if there is an ocean on Titan.
I wonder how fast the winds are on Titan.
I wonder what the rings are made of.
Saturn has a moon called Iapetus. One side is very bright, almost as bright as fresh snow, and the other side is as dark as soot. I wonder how it got that way?
Let’s discuss a few things we know about what’s in these images, and how we know it. For us to be able to claim we “know” something, we need to have accurate evidence from a reliable source. Scientific claims can’t be based on hearsay or opinions. We need to think about how the claim has been tested and proven.
We might claim, for example, that the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan is cold. We might think this because Saturn and Titan are so far away from the Sun. But we must have direct evidence for this before we can say it is true. If we are researching what others have already learned, we can look for reliable sources for that information, such as a teacher, textbook, science museum or website that has been reviewed by scientists. If we are looking to discover it ourselves, we would need to design and conduct an experiment to measure the temperature (and perhaps send our own probe there to find out).
With that in mind, what are some things we can reliably say we know about Saturn and Cassini? How do we know they are accurate? (Examples: "I know that Saturn has many moons. Cassini has taken images of them and scientists have published them on a NASA website." "I know that Titan has an atmosphere, because engineers used a parachute to land the Huygens Probe (a parachute needs an atmosphere to open).") When students suggest a claim, ask them to name the reliable source and/or evidence that supports it. This can be an opportunity to reinforce internet literacy.
We’ll continue to learn about Saturn and record what we know throughout this program.
- What do you notice about Saturn that is different from Earth?
- What might be the explanation for Saturn’s rings?
- Why are we interested in Saturn?
- Ask students to share their drawings with the group. Encourage the other students to voice what they like about each others' drawings.
After each session, ask yourself the following questions:
- Were all of the students engaged?
- Did some students take a leadership role? Did they know more about Saturn?
- Did the students discuss the pictures? Were they surprised by any of the images?
- Were some students more comfortable writing? Could you have done something different to support reluctant writers?
- Did the students observe the images carefully? Is there detail in their observations or questions?
- Did students find that observing leads to questioning?
Taking Science to the Next Level
The Cassini spacecraft passes by Saturn and Titan regularly. The Cassini status countdown clock forecasts when the spacecraft will pass by next and send back pictures of these other worlds.
Consider asking the leader in another room to do the same exercise (perhaps just the drawing portion of the activity if it is a room of younger children). The children can meet to share and talk about what they drew and why.
You may want to have the gallery of images from the Cassini mission bookmarked on the computer for the students to explore — or print them and post them around the room.
Postcards and letters are a fun alternative for publishing students’ descriptive writing about Saturn. Student pieces can be compiled into a group book, used for individual mini-books, or as text for “Postcards from Saturn” to be shared with kids in another classroom, pen pals, or family/friends.
- Pencils, colored pencils, markers and crayons
- Cardstock (or index cards)
- Colored paper
- Glue sticks
- Real postcard, stamp and envelope (as an example)
Making the Postcards
- Cut the cardstock, or use 4” by 6” or 5” by 8” plain index cards.
- Use a real postcard as a model for deciding where to put text and images.
- Students can design postage stamps for their postcards.
- Postcards can be written before Cassini arrives at Saturn, and after (with new descriptive information).
Making the Envelopes
- Carefully open an envelope along all the seams.
- Use your flattened envelope as a template for tracing and cutting envelopes from colored paper. Decorate, using available materials, and then carefully reassemble the new envelope. Be careful that the glue stays on the flaps, and does not get into the interior of the envelope.
- Envelopes can also be made from printed or photocopied images of Saturn, recycled wrapping paper, or other decorative papers.
- Students can design stamps for their envelopes.
- Put Saturn mail inside an envelope, and deliver. Or, you can make a whole-group book of Saturn mail, with a description or story woven throughout the book and a letter related to that part of the story tucked into every other page.
NASA has opportunities for fascinating careers. See the current job postings at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Share one of the listings with your students (you will have to summarize the listing for most teams) and ask them to describe how to qualify for these positions. How does someone become the Senior Orbit Determination Engineer? The Origins of Stars and Planets Group Research Scientist? Ask students what other kinds of jobs they think might be at NASA. Chart their responses and post them in the room.
- When Saturn appears in the night sky, it is bright enough to often be seen even in cities. Encourage families to pick up a public magazine on astronomy, call a local science museum, or contact an area amateur astronomy club to find out when and where to see Saturn for themselves! There are also many websites and apps to help you find the planet yourself.
- Video Series: What's Up - Learn “What’s Up” in the night sky each month in this NASA/JPL video series.
- Observing with NASA - Is weather bad when you want to observe Saturn? Try taking a picture with a remote telescope!
- Video: Through the Eyes of a Scientist: Dr Bonnie Buratti - Dr. Bonnie Buratti is a research scientist, and her main interest is studying the icy moons of Saturn and other planets. She thinks they are fascinating because some of them are volcanically active. Some of them are heavily cratered. Some of them are covered in snow and ice. She analyzes data from the Cassini spacecraft. She says, “The most important thing about being a scientist is that you are always on the forefront of knowledge, discovering new things. As a student it is important to do well in math and science, but it is also important to do well in English, because a lot of what you do is write and communicate with other scientists. It’s important to learn “how to play with others,” because as scientists we are always working as part of a team.” Learn more about Bonnie, including her background and her role as a senior research scientist in this video.
- Cassini Mission Website - Find more information, pictures, and video about the exploration of Saturn.
- Cassini Mission News - Get the latest NASA summaries and news about the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn.
- Video: Landing on Titan - This cartoon and video shows how the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan was viewed by the Huygens probe during its descent to the surface.
- Cassini Kids Space - This website provides child-friendly background about the Cassini-Huygens mission.