As the physical context for life as we know it, it is important to learn about Earth’s origins so we can understand life’s origins. Although life may exist in situations other than that of a planet orbiting a star, it makes sense to explore the phenomenon of planetary system formation as a context for the emergence and evolution of life.
The story of the formation of our solar system begins in a region of space of called a “giant molecular cloud”. You might have heard before that a cloud of gas and dust in space is also called a “nebula,” so the scientific theory for how stars and planets form from molecular clouds is also sometimes called the Nebular Theory. Nebular Theory tells us that a process known as “gravitational contraction” occurred, causing parts of the cloud to clump together, which would allow for the Sun and planets to form from it.
Before gravitational contraction, the majority of the material within the giant molecular cloud that formed our solar system consisted of hydrogen and helium produced at the time of the big bang, with small amounts of heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen which were made via nucleosynthesis in prior generations of stars (see 1.1 above). The material in this giant cloud was not uniformly distributed – there were regions of higher density (more dust and gas within a specific volume of space) and regions of lower density (less gas and dust within that same volume).
Evidence from meteorites suggests that the energy produced by a nearby exploding star (a supernova) passed through a higher density region in the cloud and caused it to begin to swirl and twist about. This area of the cloud is sometimes called the pre-solar nebula (“pre” = before; “solar” = star or Sun). As molecules in the pre-solar nebula were swirling about, some of them started bumping into each other and sometimes would even stick together. As more and more of these clumps formed, gravity caused them to start sticking together and to fall into the center of the pre-solar nebula, which only caused gravity to pull even more of the material into the center of the cloud, and this is the process that’s referred to as gravitational contraction.
While all of this was happening, the action of molecules bumping into each other over and over slowly caused the pre-solar nebula to flatten into a spinning disk of dust and gas. This is sometimes called a circumstellar disk (“circum” = around; “stellar” = star) or protoplanetary disk (“proto” = first or before). Almost all of the material in the disk collected in the center, giving rise to the young Sun. However, some of the particles in the spinning disk began colliding with each other and sticking together, forming larger and larger fragments. The larger a fragment became, the more mass it had and therefore the more gravitational pull it exerted. Which in turn drew more and more material to it, and the larger it became, and so on. This process is called “accretion,” and resulted in the production of many planetesimals (small objects that build up into planets), and eventually, the planets themselves.
While the young Sun was starting to heat up in the middle of the protoplanetary disk, it warmed up the disk so much that nothing could stay solid really close to the Sun (it all melted). A little further out from the Sun, stuff like metal and rock was able to cool enough to make solid materials for forming the planets. But it was still so hot there that molecules that are often liquids or gases here on Earth (like water, ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane) couldn’t easily stick to the solid planet-forming materials. Those molecules could only really be added to planets that were a lot further from the Sun, where it was cold enough for them to clump together with the other solid stuff. This is why we have gas giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn which are very different from the rocky planets like Earth and Venus.
Disciplinary Core Ideas
ESS1.A: The universe and its Stars: Nearly all observable matter in the universe is hydrogen or helium, which formed in the first minutes after the big bang. Elements other than these remnants of the big bang continue to form within the cores of stars. (HS-ESS1-2) *Nuclear fusion within stars produces all atomic nuclei lighter than and including iron, and the process releases the energy seen as starlight. Heavier elements are produced when certain massive stars achieve a supernova stage and explode. (HS-ESS1-2, HS-ESS1-3) *Stars go through a sequence of developmental stages — they are formed; evolve in size, mass, and brightness; and eventually burn out. Material from earlier stars that exploded as supernovas is recycled to form younger stars and their planetary systems.
ESS1.B: Earth and the Solar System: Kepler’s laws describe common features of the motions of orbiting objects, including their elliptical paths around the Sun. (HS-ESS1-4) *The solar system consists of the Sun and a collection of objects of varying sizes and conditions — including planets and their moons — that are held in orbit around the Sun by its gravitational pull on them. This system appears to have formed from a disk of dust and gas, drawn together by gravity.
PS1.C: Nuclear Processes: Nuclear processes, including fusion, fission, and radioactive decays of unstable nuclei, involve release or absorption of energy. The total number of neutrons plus protons does not change in any nuclear process. (HS-PS1-8)
Scientific knowledge is based on the assumption that natural laws operate today as they did in the past and they will continue to doe so in the future (HS-ESS1-2). Science assumes the universe is a vast single system in which basic laws are consistent. (HS-ESS1-2)
2-12 Toilet Paper Solar System. Even in our own “cosmic neighborhood,” distances in space are so vast they are difficult to imagine. In this activity, participants build a scale model of the distances in the solar system using a roll of toilet paper. https://astrosociety.org/file_download/inline/cfdf9b2c-5947-4c19-9a23-a790ac3c7ae0
3-5, 6-8, 9-12 Marsbound! In this NGSS aligned activity (three 45-minute sessions), students in grades become NASA project managers and design their own NASA mission to Mars. Mars is significant in astrobiology and more needs to be learned about this planet and its potential for life. Students create a mission that must balance the return of science data with mission limitations such as power, mass and budget. Risk factors play a role and add to the excitement in this interactive mission planning activity. Arizona State University/NASA. http://marsed.asu.edu/lesson_plans/marsbound
4-12 Meet the Planets. In this activity, kids identify the planets in the solar system, observe and describe their characteristics and features, and build a scale model out of everyday materials. They are also introduced to moons, comets, and asteroids. (Finding life Beyond Earth, page 13) NOVA. https://d43fweuh3sg51.cloudfront.net/media/assets/wgbh/nvfl/nvfl_doc_collection/nvfl_doc_collection.pdf
5-12 Exploring Meteorite Mysteries: The Meteorite Asteroid Connection (4.1). In this lesson, students build an exact-scale model of the inner solar system; the scale allows the model to fit within a normal classroom and also allows the representation of Earth to be visible without magnification. Students chart where most asteroids are, compared to the Earth, and see that a few asteroids come close to the Earth. Students see that the solar system is mostly empty space unlike the way it appears on most charts and maps. NASA. https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/Exploring_Meteorite_Mysteries.pdf
5-12 Exploring Meteorite Mysteries: Building Blocks of Planets (10.1). Chondrites are the most primitive type of rock available for study. The chondrules that make up chondrites are considered the building blocks of planets. In this lesson, students experiment with balloons and static electricity to illustrate the theories about how dust particles collected into larger clusters. Students also manipulate magnetic marbles and steel balls to illustrate the accretion of chondritic material into larger bodies like planets and asteroids. NASA. https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/Exploring_Meteorite_Mysteries.pdf
5-12 Exploring Meteorite Mysteries: Exploration Proposal (17.1). Exploration of the outer Solar System provides clues to the beginnings of the solar system. This is a group-participation simulation based on the premise that water and other resources from the asteroid belt are required for deep space exploration. Students brainstorm or investigate to identify useful resources, including water, that might be found on an asteroid. NASA. https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/Exploring_Meteorite_Mysteries.pdf
5-12 Big Explosions and Strong Gravity. In this one-two day activity, students work in groups to examine the crushing ability of gravity, equilibrium, and a model for the creation of heavy elements through a supernova. This active lesson helps students visualize the variation and life cycle of stars. NASAhttp://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/educators/programs/bigexplosions/activities/supernova_demos.html
6-9 Rising Stargirls Teaching and Activity Handbook. 1.2. Art & the Cosmic Connection: (page 19). This activity engages students in space and science education by becoming explorers. Using the elements of art: line, color, texture, shape, and value: students learn to analyze the mysterious surfaces of our rocky celestial neighbors; planets, moons, comets and asteroids, as well as the Earth. Name That Planet (page 25) Students communicate their knowledge about the solar system using different modes of communication—visual, verbal, and kinesthetic. Distance Calculation (page 27) Students calculate the distances between planets using a unit of measurement that is personal to them—themselves! Rising Stargirls activities fuse science and the arts to create enlightened future scientists and imaginative thinkers. Rising Stargirls. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/54d01d6be4b07f8719d7f29e/t/5748c58ec2ea517f705c7cc6/1464386959806/Rising_Stargirls_Teaching_Handbook.compressed.pdf
6-12 Science Fiction Stories with Good Astronomy & Physics: A Topical List: Cosmology. 1.2. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific created this list of short stories and novels that use more or less accurate science and can be used for teaching or reinforcing astronomy or physics concepts including the origin of the universe. https://astrosociety.org/file_download/inline/621a63fc-04d5-4794-8d2b-38e7195056e9
6-12 Where are the Small Worlds? Through an immersive digital experience (1-2 hours), students use a simulation/model of the solar system in order to investigate small worlds in order to learn more about the solar system and its origin. The experience can be standalone or has options to track student tasks or modify the simulation as needed by the teacher. Arizona State University. https://infiniscope.org/lesson/where-are-the-small-worlds/
6-12 Astrobiology Math. This collection of math problems provides an authentic glimpse of modern astrobiology science and engineering issues, often involving actual research data. Students explore concepts in astrobiology through calculations. Relevant topics include Habitable Zones and Stellar Luminosity (page 57) and Ice or Water? (page 49). NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/637832main_Astrobiology_Math.pdf
6-12 Pocket Solar System. This activity involves making a simple model to give students an overview of the distances between the orbits of the planets and other objects in our solar system. It is also a good tool for reviewing fractions. https://astrosociety.org/file_download/inline/5c27818a-e947-46ad-a9dc-f4af157af7d8
6-12 Origins: The Universe. In this web interactive, scientists use a giant eye in the southern sky to unravel how galaxies are born. Video, pictures, and print weave information for the learner as they more deeply understand the scientific pursuit of astrobiology. UW-Madison. https://origins.wisc.edu/
7-9 SpaceMath Problem 8: Making a Model Planet. Students use the formula for a sphere, and the concept of density, to make a mathematical model of a planet based on its mass, radius and the density of several possible materials (ice, silicate rock, iron, basalt). [Topics: volume of sphere; mass = density x volume; decimal math; scientific notation] https://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/astrob/Week14.pdf
9-10 Voyages through Time: Cosmic Evolution. This comprehensive integrated curriculum includes the universe, the totality of all things that exist, origins (beginning with an explosion of space and time and the expansion of a hot, dense mass of elementary particles and photons), and how it has evolved over billions of years into the stars and galaxies we observe today. Sample lesson on the website and the curriculum is available for purchase. SETI. http://www.voyagesthroughtime.org/cosmic/index.html
9-11 SpaceMath Problem 302: How to Build a Planet from the Inside Out. Students model a planet using a spherical core and shell with different densities. The goal is to create a planet of the right size, and with the correct mass using common planet building materials. [Topics: geometry; volume; scientific notation; mass=density x volume] https://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/astrob/6Page72.pdf
9-12 Genesis Science Modules: Cosmic Chemistry: Planetary Diversity. The goal of this module is to acquaint students with the planets of the solar system and some current models for their origin and evolution. The lessons in the Genesis Science Modules challenge students to look for patterns in data, to generate observations, and critically analyze where the data does not fit with the current nebular model. This mini-unit reveals the essence of scientific research and argument within the context of the formation of solar systems. JPL/NASA http://genesismission.jpl.nasa.gov/educate/scimodule/PlanetaryDiversity/index.html
9-12 A101 Slide Set: From Supernovae to Planets. This slide set explains the discoveries of the SOFIA mission and the implications of the new data explaining how supernovae and dust push planet formation and how this is the physical context for life. SOFIA/NASA https://slideplayer.com/slide/8679314/ Teacher’s Guide:
11-12 SpaceMath Problem 305: From Asteroids to Planets. Students explore how long it takes to form a small planet from a collection of asteroids in a planet-forming disk of matter orbiting a star based on a very simple physical model. [Topics: integral calculus] https://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/astrob/6Page82.pdf
11-12 SpaceMath Problem 304: From Dust Balls to Asteroids. Students calculate how long it takes to form an asteroid-sized body using a simple differential equation based on a very simple physical model. [Topics: integral calculus] https://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/astrob/6Page81.pdf
11-12 SpaceMath Problem 303: From Dust Grains to Dust Balls. Students create a model of how dust grains grow to centimeter-sized dust balls as part of forming a planet based on a very simple physical model. [Topics: integral calculus] https://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/astrob/6Page80.pdf