Stringing the Solar System: A Fun Experiment to Measure Planetary Distances

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If you’ve been around for a while, you know I used to work at NASA, and therefore I’m all for exploring space. When we started to talk about the solar system and were trying to wrap our heads around just how enormous it is, I knew we had to find a way to visualize it.

The Stringing the Solar System science experiment explores the size of our solar system, the distance between planets, the order of the planets, as well as the visualization of how all planets orbit the Sun.

Ready to take a trip around our solar system? Let’s do it!

How to make the Stringing the Solar System science experiment

Supplies you will need

For this experiment, you will need the following:

  • ButtonsOpens in a new tab.
  • StringOpens in a new tab. (recommend 11 feet)
  • Measuring tapeOpens in a new tab.
  • ScissorsOpens in a new tab.
  • Marker
  • Optional: hot glue gun (to hold the buttons in place), tape (to hold the ends of the string together so you can thread the buttons)

Here’s a great book about the planets that we have and love!

Supplies needed for the Stringing the Solar System science experiment

Before you start

If your child has advanced enough with fine motor skills, have them thread the buttons on themselves!

Instructions

Here is how to do this experiment with your child:

Step 1: Cut your string

You’re going to need at least 10 feet of string for this experiment. I recommend cutting 11 feet so you have plenty to spare, especially if you plan on tying a knot around each planet (button).

Eleven feet of string, cut

Step 2: Choose a button for each planet

We have this book about planetsOpens in a new tab. and really like it. We wanted the buttons to look as similar to the planets as possible, so we used the book to match our 8 buttons (we chose to use two buttons for Saturn to represent the rings around the planet).

If you want, you could also add a button to represent the Sun. My pack of buttons didn’t have two large buttons (one for the Sun and one for Jupiter), so I opted to keep the one large button for Jupiter and have the person holding the end of the string be the Sun.

Buttons that we chose with the solar system book

Step 3: Measure each planet on the string

I used NASA’s spreadsheet to calculate the lengths from the Sun to each planet, which you’ll find below.

Here is a list of lengths to use for each planet, rounded to the hundredths:

  • Mercury: 1.53″
  • Venus: 2.83″
  • Earth: 3.94″
  • Mars: 5.98″
  • Jupiter: 20.47″
  • Saturn: 37.56″
  • Uranus: 75.59″
  • Neptune: 118.35″

Don’t let the large number of inches by Neptune intimidate you! It’s right around 10 feet, which is one less foot of string that I recommended you have for this experiment.

You could even work together (if you have the floor space) to keep the Sun still and rotate the entire string of planets in a circle around it to show how we all orbit the Sun!

Using measuring tape to mark the string
First few planets marked on the string

Step 4: Thread the buttons on the string

Once you have all of the measurements done, it’s time to start threading on the buttons.

Have them all laid out and ready to go. I started by threading Saturn on first and finished the farthest side of the string first (Saturn, Uranus, Neptune).

Then, I started with Jupiter from the closest point to the Sun and worked my way down to Mercury (Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus, Mercury).

If your string starts to unravel at the ends and it gets difficult to thread your buttons, use a small piece of tape and wrap it tightly around the end of the string (shown below).

Showing a button with the marked string
Wrapping a piece of tape tightly around the end of the string
Wrapped piece of tape around the end of the string

Step 5: Talk about it!

This experiment doesn’t mean much if you don’t talk through it with your child afterward, so be sure to have a fun conversation about the size of our solar system!

Here are a few fun facts to get the conversation started:

  • The hottest planet in our solar system is not actually the closest planet to the Sun (Mercury). It’s Venus! Venus has a very thick atmosphere, and when sunlight passes into its atmosphere, it works like that of a greenhouse.
  • Mercury and Venus are the only two planets in our solar system that do not have a moon.
  • The footprints we left on the Moon will not disappear because there is no wind to move the sand and rocks to cover them.
  • Uranus rotates on its side.

The science behind the Stringing the Solar System experiment

This experiment teaches:

  • Distance
  • Introduction to the solar system
  • Fine motor skills

How it works

The Stringing the Solar System science experiment teaches children about distance, and the solar system, and aids in developing fine motor skills. It gives a concrete example of how far each planet is from the Sun while starting the conversation about our solar system, which planet we live on, and some fun facts about the other planets around us!

Distance

Talking about distance can be a struggle for young children. This experiment allows you to measure along the string together using a measuring tape and talk about how we measure distance.

For older kids, you can use this experiment to talk about scaling down to show a concrete example of very large distances (like the distances from each planet to the Sun).

There’s something in it for everyone!

Introduction to the solar system

If your child hasn’t been introduced to the solar system yet, this is a fantastic opportunity to do so!

You can talk about the planets and their order from the Sun, give a visual representation of all of the planets orbiting the Sun (hold the string close to the Sun and have your child hold the other end and walk in a circle around you), and talk about the names of each planet.

Fine motor skills

If they’re able, it’s a great fine motor skills exercise for your child to thread the buttons onto the string for this experiment.

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