Eclipse illustration Image Credit : Goddard Space Flight Center

Activities for the Total Solar Eclipse

Below are some educational activities the LRO team recommends for the upcoming total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. For all the activities, we encourage participants to consider what the activity models well and also to consider the limitations of the model.

Eclipse Models

On Earth, we are very lucky to be able to view total solar eclipses. Thanks to the ratio between the size and distance of the Moon and the Sun, the two bodies appear to be roughly the same size in our sky. The following activities explore the relationship of the Earth to the Moon and the Sun so participants can learn how and why eclipses occur.

This activity is easy to do outdoors or indoors and requires few supplies. It asks participants to model orbits and observe how the Moon can block the Sun's light.

  • Source: National Informal Stem Education Network
  • Target Audience: Ages 4 and up
  • Important Concepts: Scale, apparent size, shadows, orbits
  • Suggested Modifications: The activity asks for an Earth globe and a small toy Moon, but any type of sphere can be substituted. We recommend a beach ball and a small styrofoam ball or baseball.

This activity encourages participants to confront their misconceptions about the size and distance of Earth's Moon. Using just balloons and string, participants create an Earth-Moon model and learn how the small Moon can cover the enormous Sun during a total solar eclipse.

  • Source: Rice Space Institute
  • Target Audience: Elementary - Middle School
  • Important Concepts: Scale, apparent vs. actual size, ratios

This simple activity allows learners to explore apparent size and its relation to the eclipse.

  • Source: National Informal Stem Education Network
  • Target Audience: Ages 4 - Adult
  • Important Concepts: Scale, apparent vs. actual size, ratios
  • Suggested Modifications: You can try this activity with any two objects of different sizes. If you only have one type of ball, ask participants to find a spot on the wall or far away that they can eclipse using the ball.

Lunar Topography

The Moon's terrain impacts our view of the total solar eclipse. Thanks to NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, we know the topography of the Moon better than any other moon or planet in the Solar System! The peaks and valleys along the limb (silhouette edge) of the Moon affect the timing of totality, the shape of the Moon's shadow on Earth, and the location of phenomena such as the diamond ring effect. Using LRO data, we can predict these effects with better precision and accuracy than ever before. The following activities allow participants to model lunar topography.

The following two activities should be done together. Impact Craters models the general shape and appearance of impact craters (circular depressions, surrounded by raised rims, surrounded by ejecta). Splat! models the size (diameter) of the impact crater relative to the size (diameter) of the impactor in impact crater formation. It also models the destruction of the impactor during impact crater formation.

While a bit messy, this activity beautifully demonstrates how impact craters form and how they can tell us about the composition and geologic history of the Moon.

  • Source: Lunar Planetary Institute
  • Target Audience: Ages 8 and up
  • Important Concepts:
  • Suggested Modifications: The LRO Outreach team uses a bottom layer of cat litter below the flour to simulate a lower rock unit and a golf ball and a ping pong ball for the balls of different masses. If you want to tie this to Earth, there is a Landsat activity about Finding Impact Craters with Landsat, which could be included
  • Have students make more than one impact. Explain that scientists often do a single experiment several times and take an average to get the most reliable result.

A great outdoor warm-weather activity, Kid Moon: Splat encourages participants to compare the size of impactors (water balloons) with the diameter of the craters they form (the splash zone).

  • Source: Lunar Planetary Institute
  • Target Audience: Ages 4 and up
  • Important Concepts: Models, projectiles, asteroids, craters, geologic history

Moon Phases and Observations

During the total solar eclipse, the Moon will be in its New Moon phase, which means that it is in the same part of our sky as the Sun. Typically, we don't get to see the Moon during this phase because the far side is lit and it's up during the day. During the total solar eclipse, not only do we get to see the Moon obscure the Sun - but we get to actually observe a New Moon! The following activities will help participants to understand Moon phases and appreciate the special opportunity to observe a New Moon from Earth.

Moon phases are commonly misunderstood. In this activity, participants model the phases with a light source and a small white ball.

  • Source: Lunar Planetary Institute
  • Target Audience: Ages 10 - 13 (and up)
  • Important Concepts: Models, projectiles, asteroids, craters, geologic history
  • Suggested Modifications: Use a bright lamp in a dark room as the Sun in order to do this activity inside. This often works better than outdoors because there is a higher contrast in light and darkness and it is a closer model to space.

Learners who keep a Moon Journal will track lunar phases for a month to directly observe how the Moon changes shape and location. They will record observations and try to find a pattern.

  • Source: International Observe the Moon Night & the Lunar and Planetary Institute
  • Target Audience: All ages
  • Important Concepts: Moon phases, scientific inquiry, lunar observation, the Moon's place in the sky in relation to the Sun
  • Suggested Modifications: To make this eclipse-related and emphasize that during the eclipse, we will see a New Moon, begin the Moon Journal 28 days before the eclipse, on July 25

Light, Shadows, and Reflectivity

The total solar eclipse is an interplay between light and shadows. One moment, sunlight reaches Earth. In the next, during totality, the Moon blocks the Sun and we fall in the Moon's shadow. The following activities encourage visitors to make connections between personal experiences of shadows and light and transfer those concepts to the Sun-Earth-Moon system.

In this activity, participants confront the misconception that the Moon produces its own light. With only tennis balls, aluminum foil, and a flashlight, learners explore reflectivity (albedo).

  • Source: Lunar and Planetary Institute
  • Target Audience: Ages 8 - 13
  • Important Concepts: Albedo, light, shadows, reflectivity
  • Suggested Modifications: During a total solar eclipse, the moon blocks the sun's light from reaching Earth. If the Moon produced its own light, it would not get as dark during a total solar eclipse.

This activity is ideal for outdoor events, particularly those where participants will spend a long amount of time. In this activity, learners trace their shadows and return some time later to observe the changes.

  • Source: University of California, Berkeley
  • Target Audience: Elementary and up
  • Important Concepts: Shadows, motion of the Earth and Moon, apparent motion of the Sun, light
  • Suggested Modifications: Draw the connection between this activity and the eclipse by asking participants how they think shadows are important in the eclipse. In a total solar eclipse, the Moon casts a shadow on the Earth. If you are inside the umbra of that shadow, you will see a total solar eclipse. If you are inside the penumbra, you will see a partial eclipse. As participants learned in the activity, because of the Earth and Moon's movements, the time spent in the shadow is very short.
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