Artist's rendering of Cassini at Saturn


In this activity, split into four about 40 minute sessions, youth will:

  • Connect with the Cassini spacecraft and the designers who built it — by thinking like engineers.
  • Follow the engineering process of building a spacecraft through team discussion, design drawing, model construction, and peer presentation — which emulates steps taken by the Cassini team in designing a spacecraft to travel to Saturn.
  • Create and present their design drawing and their model spacecraft.
  • Work as an engineering team to make changes, as in the engineering design process.
  • Make a model of a spacecraft to go to Saturn, working together as a team.
  • Activity Goals: Learn the way in which the requirements of space travel impact design of a spacecraft; learn the value of “peer review” and revision as a normal part of the engineering design process; learn to compare and contrast their solutions with the solutions of others; learn to use illustrations with text to communicate their ideas to peers.

Note: This activity is part of the Jewel of the Solar System activity guide, which includes:

  1. What Do I See When I Picture Saturn?
  2. Where Are We in the Solar System?
  3. Discovering Saturn: The Real "Lord of the Rings"
  4. Saturn's Fascinating Features
  5. My Spacecraft to Saturn (current activity)
  6. All About Titan and Huygens Probe
  7. Drop Zone! Design and Test a Probe
  8. Celebrating Saturn and Cassini



Getting Ready

  • Read and review the activity step-by-step instructions in the "Procedures" section.

  • Ask students to bring clean recyclable materials (cereal boxes, empty plastic bottles, etc.) from home to be used as building materials for the model.

  • Gather recyclable materials from your site to have available as extra building materials.

Equity/Leveling the Playing Field

  • In this activity, students are asked to brainstorm ideas. It is important to create an environment where all ideas are valued so that students will be more likely to share their ideas safely.

  • Occasionally other students will laugh or ridicule ideas (or performance). Set the stage early — remind students to be courteous, that everyone’s ideas are important, and that things we thought silly at one time are fact now (people have walked on the Moon, we’ve taken a peek at another world, we have evidence of planets around other stars!).

Leader Tips

  • While there are some interesting similarities in the functions of a spacecraft and those of humans, watch your students for signs of misconceptions that robotic spacecraft work just like a human body; for example, that spacecraft breathe or speak a human language.


This activity presents an engineering design challenge based on the science information students now have on Saturn and Cassini.

Robotic exploration spacecraft are “built-to-order” to achieve specific science goals — they aren’t typically “off-the-shelf.” For the Cassini mission, the spacecraft was specifically designed for its destination, the distance, the risk and challenges of space, and the requirements of the science team’s experiments to answer questions. It’s the job of an engineering team to translate the goals of the scientists’ experiments into the design and construction of a spacecraft.

A robotic spacecraft has to be able to do many of the things we do as humans, but without our presence:

  • “See” to navigate and send back pictures
  • “Touch” with special instruments that can take samples
  • “Hear” from and “speak” to engineers on Earth, through the use of communication antennas
  • “Think” with computers and instruments that make measurements

See this diagram for how the components of the Cassini spacecraft function like the human body. And take a 3-D tour of the Cassini spacecraft.

Diagram of the Cassini spacecraft


Session 1 – Brainstorming (about 40 minutes)

  1. Tell your group that they are going to be working today to design a spacecraft to go to Saturn. Read the "Designing a Spacecraft" script aloud to the group.

  2. Organize the students into teams of three or four. Ask them to spend a few minutes brainstorming a way to protect their spacecraft in the space environment. Bring the group back and ask students to share their ideas.

  3. Tell your students that they will work as design teams and record their ideas. Give each team a copy of the "Design Questions" student handout.

  4. Ask the design teams to proceed in designing and sketching their spacecraft.

  5. Circulate throughout the room to assist the students as they complete their designs.

Session 2 – Revising the Plans (about 40 minutes)

  1. Have each team share their spacecraft designs with the larger group.

  2. Encourage the large group to offer a friendly critique of the designs as they are presented.

  3. Ask the teams to revisit their designs to fine tune them and incorporate their peers’ suggestions if they feel the suggestions are appropriate.

Session 3 – Building the Models (about 40 minutes)

    participant building Cassini model

    Image credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

  1. Have the students join their original teams.

  2. Ask the students if they are satisfied with their designs. If not, allow them time to revisit and refine their designs. If so, tell them that they are going to build a model of the spacecraft based on their drawings.

  3. Put all of the building materials out and ask the teams to think about how they can be used to make a model of the spacecraft in their sketches.

  4. Remind the students to work together as a team. Ask students to make a “materials” list for their model and, when the group agrees on the list, take the materials back to their table.

  5. Give students time to complete the model.

  6. After they have completed building the model, ask them if they made changes to the design as they worked. If so, ask them to reflect those changes on their drawing.

Session 4 – Presentations (about 40 minutes)

  1. Ask each team to present their drawing and model. Ask them to:
    • Talk about their design process and the decisions they made in selecting that design.

    • Show their drawing and describe it.

    • Show their model and describe how they took a 2-D drawing and created a 3-D structure.



  • What kind of changes happened when you translated the 2-dimensional design into a 3-dimensional structure?

  • Did your design change as you started building? Discuss why or why not.

Share the Findings

  • Have the class share things they like about each other’s work, questions they have, and suggestions for the presented designs.


Between sessions, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are the students able to meet challenges or brainstorm successfully?

  • Did everyone participate? Did everyone feel comfortable sharing his or her ideas?

  • Were the students able to devise creative solutions to design challenges?


Information for Families

  • Cassini on parade! A 50-foot tall robot featuring a “Family of Explorers” skated down Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena, California, during the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day 2005. Ten NASA spacecraft were featured in this float, made with 500 pounds of seed and 750,000 flowers! The crown jewel at the top of the robot’s head was the Cassini spacecraft, sent to study Saturn. View a picture of the float here.

  • Get quick facts about the Cassini spacecraft.

  • The Space Place offers simulations and space technology games for young children.

Careers at NASA

  • Hear NASA/JPL mechanical engineer and mentor Kobie Boykins explain that curiosity and a variety of interests make for a great intern. They are also creative, innovative, good organizers, big thinkers, and detail-oriented; they write well, and they can be influencers, competitors, and collaborators.

Role Model Resource

Shonte Tucker

Shonte Tucker is a senior thermal engineer at JPL, ensuring that items on a spacecraft are within flight temperature limits while making minimal use of spacecraft resources. Her job is critical to missions, because if an instrument’s temperature range is not properly controlled, it may be unable to perform the task for which it was intended. Shonte advises students to “stay in school and have dreams, take as many math and science classes as possible, and don’t give up your options. The skills acquired to fulfill a dream in one career direction could be used for a career in a completely different direction.”

Read more about Shonte Tucker


  • Where Is Cassini Now? Visit the Cassini website for more information on Saturn and to view Cassini's status.

Taking the Science to the Next Step

  • Have the students write a paragraph describing everything about their spacecraft. For an extra challenge, you can hang the sketches of spacecraft around the room, and have the class members work in pairs to match descriptive paragraphs to the actual sketches.

  • Build a paper model of the Cassini spacecraft (or others) with these projects for kids.

  • Spacecraft Design Research


  • Ask students to write a paragraph comparing a human to a Cassini spacecraft. Have students write one paragraph about how they are the same and another paragraph about how they are different.

Singing Activity

  • Just for fun, the Cassini Virtual Singers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory get together occasionally and perform songs they have developed. The singers are scientists, engineers, and others who support the mission. They have a repertoire of about 50 songs, based on familiar melodies but with lyrics about the Cassini mission. As a group, ask students to write a song about Saturn to the tune of Old MacDonald.