Scale Model Solar System resources for informal educators

Incorrect Model of the Solar System

updated 1/26/21 - Added orrery embed and JPL Scale Model Activities, and other videos.

The Image above is NOT to scale, but it's an image everyone grows up seeing.  Making and exploring a more accurate scale model Solar System (or at least part of one) can help students and the public better understand the vastness of space and the challenges of space exploration.  These are classic activities/displays for use by all: in classrooms, planetariums, museums, libraries, etc.  It can take only a few minutes to create a scale model Solar System exhibit for your audiences, or have your audiences build one as an activity, like the image below.  Also below are some resources to help you.  For Alliance members, we hope you'll share any scale model exhibits you have with NASA audiences around the world. 

Official NASA resources:

  • NASA's official Solar System Lithograph set (you may also want to include the NASA Pluto Lithograph) and the Solar System and Beyond Poster Set (sized for easy 11x17" printing, and available in trading card form) allows you to print out a nice set of visuals, and maybe even laminate them to preserve them for future programs.  It's a small investment to awe and engage your students for years to come.  Note that these images are NOT meant to be to scale with each other. 
  • The official NASA Solar System website has updated facts by numbers, galleries, 3D models, and other information, including an interactive, mobile-friendly digital orrery (note the 3D models and orrery are also embeddable using iframes for your museum or library website as below, see this members only example).
  • JPL's Scale Model activities are a collection six hands-on activities that can fit varying student levels and lesson types.   
  • NASA Eyes lets you explore a simulation of the whole Solar System and beyond, all completely to scale, including NASA spacecraft, past and present, as well as discovered exoplanets.  For Alliance members only, see our recorded Eyes Workshop Webinar series for advanced tips.  
  • Night Sky Network "Worlds of the Solar System" is the source of the Planets to Scale PDF.  To make it fit on a single 8.5x11" sheet of paper (diagonally), you may use the distance scale 1 cm : 1 astronomical unit (note the mention of lower-case) or 149,597,870.7 km.  Provide a simple ruler, a pencil, and an example, and have students make their own to take home.  Tape the information onto the back of the sheet, for those who want to keep the actual numbers.  See an example below:
  • Solar System to Scale  Scale model Solar System Student Example - Front
  • Night Sky Network "Yardstick Eclipse" is another, smaller scale that may be easier for classroom educators.
  • TRAPPIST-1 Scale Model System is an activity to explore a scale model exoplanet system.
  • Red Nickel Scale Model is a demo from a NASA Solar System Ambassador.
  • PBS Digital Learning media has NASA funded curriculum, videos and professional development guides, such as "Earth as a Peppercorn."
  • NASA Solar Pizza activity is a very quick and easy model Solar System using only the Earth and the Sun.  It's perfect to teach about the Parker Solar Probe mission, because at this scale, the probe will get within literally arm's reach to "touch the Sun" at around 2.6 feet.
  • NASA eClips about Scaling the Solar System and Limits of the Solar System 
    • Aside from the football field used in the video, another great tool to use for these activities might be your parking lot. The standard parking space is about 9 feet wide, so about 7 - 8 spaces are needed for the Solar Pizza activity, for example.  Don't waste too much time on exact measurements, as long as you get within the correct range.  The Solar System isn't perfect, and the exact distances are constantly changing, as the Solar System is a dynamic place.  Even the numbers that NASA shows and uses for education are approximations (though, for actual missions they spend much time and effort to be very exact, of course). 
    • Depending on the grade level and your informal setting, just gettng students to acknowledge and understand the inaccuracies of drawings or models can be enough for one session.  For example, a simple learning objective for informal audiences could be that the scale of the planet distances and the scale of their sizes are, by necessity, vastly different for most drawings/models.  Alternatively, you may want to emphasize that the planets hardly ever line up properly, or that orbits, while technically elliptical, appear much more circular than people think when drawn to scale; in math terms, the planets have very low "orbital eccentricity."

For Park Educators: 
Peoria, Illinois Scale Model Solar System (Credit: Peoria Riverfront Museum)
Use your large parks to create a TRULY scale model Solar System in both size AND scale, something practically impossible in any other venue.  It can be elaborate, like in the above picture from the Peoria Riverfront Museum in IL, or just print out the NASA "Planets to Scale PDF," and find some space.  Maybe you can print out several copies and laminate them for durability.  Do you have a hiking trail or a jogging route?  Put a meter stick at one end to represent the scaled diameter of Sun, or better yet, get a 1 meter diameter circle of something (e.g. poster board, wood, metal, old truck tire spray painted yellow, etc.).  Then hike the trail and place the scaled pictures of the planets at the distances on the PDF, as appropriate.  For example, Mercury is at only 42 meters from the scaled Sun, but Jupiter is 560 meters, and Neptune is at 3 km.  Need a different scale or have other questions?  Let us know and we'll help you out.

Other resources: 
Please note that NASA does not endorse third party commercial products.  Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in third party materials are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NASA.  These are merely examples of what is available, and we encourage you to search and explore more on your own.

  • Museum of Science, Boston, has a sorting and classification activity "Our Place in Space" which deals with size and scale.  You can customize that set and subtract/add whatever objects you want (e.g. asteroids, comets, dwarf planets, more moons, etc.).
  • If the Moon were one Pixel is "a tediously accurate scale model of the Solar System" with text in multiple languages including Spanish, Chinese, and more.
  • The Map a Model Solar System interactive by PBS LearningMedia lets you set the center of the solar system in any location in the United States, pick a scale based on the size of the Sun or Earth, and then see the relative locations of planetary orbits on the map.
  • Which Planet is the Closest? is a counterintuitive exploration of a seemingly simple Solar System question.
  • Thinkzone's Scale Solar System Calculator can also show a customized, interactive model in Google Maps, then overlay that model onto your park, museum, city, etc.  It can also generate a downloadable KML file for use in digital programs such as digital planetariums and Google Earth.  See the example below centered around NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Lat=34.198121, Long=-118.175231) with the Sun's diameter set to 1 meter:
    JPL Solar System (Credit: Thinkzone)
  • The Exploratorium has a convenient Scale Solar System calculator.
  • The Franklin Institute's Sidewalk Solar System uses sidewalk (or toilet paper) squares.
  • The ASP has a "Pocket Solar System" activity using nothing but strips of paper and pencils.  Also, see the JPL adaptation of this method, "Solar System Scroll," that talks about having students make initial predictions before doing the activity.
    Pocket Solar System 
  • To Scale: The Solar System is a 7 minute artistic video about creating a truly scale model Solar System.  It's also downloadable for offline viewing.
  • Drone Solar System Model is a 9 minute video about an approximate scale model Solar System using every day objects.
  • Universe Size Comparison is a 14 minute video animation comparing the size of a range of objects.
  • Metric Paper & Everything in the Universe is a 9 minute video similar to the 1977 Powers of Ten video.
  • For members only, see a Solar System and Beyond ebook example, and the Scale Solar System Display Case Examples.
  • With more time, you can preface a scale model Solar System with a scale model student drawing activity.  Have students measure themselves (partners really help) with meter sticks/tape measures, and do some simple math to create a 1/10th scale stick figure of themselves.  Start with head, body, arms, and legs, but encourage students to go as far as they wish (eyes, nose, mouth, hands, feet, etc.). End with a classroom/pair-share discussion of what do you find interesting/surprising about your scale model?  Also, why do you think accurate scale models are so important (especially at places like NASA)?  This results in a wide variety of revelations, and can help more concretely relate concepts of a scale model Solar System to students.  Of course, drawing/creating scale models of other objects (big or small) is also a great extension activity.  Click the image below for an example.
    Scale model Student

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Multimedia: Videos
NASA Resources