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Spacecraft Launched on Mission to Pluto




  • Arts & Humanities
    --Language Arts
  • Science
    --Space Science
  • Social Studies
    --Current Events


Grades 2-up

News Content

The just-launched New Horizons spacecraft will help scientists learn about Pluto and other distant parts of the solar system.

Anticipation Guide

Before reading, ask students to agree or disagree with each of the statements below.

  • Pluto is the planet farthest from the sun.
  • The planet Pluto is 3 million miles from Earth.
  • It would take a spacecraft almost 10 years to reach Pluto.
  • Just like Earth, the planet Pluto has one moon.
  • The fastest spacecraft travel at speeds of about 10,000 miles per hour.

Before reading this week's News for KIDS article, you might also introduce to students a map of the solar system. Talk about the locations of the nine planets.

News Words

Introduce and talk about these words from the News Word box on the students' printable page:

  • Charon -- pronounced like the girl's name Sharon, this is the name given to Pluto's moon by the man who discovered the planet. In Greek mythology, Charon was a figure with close ties to the god Pluto.
  • mission -- a special job. We were on a mission to find the missing spelling book.
  • surface -- the outermost layer of something.
  • atmosphere -- the air in a particular place; for example, the gases around a particular planet.

Read the News

Click for a printable version of this week's news story Spacecraft Launched on Mission to Pluto.

You might use a variety of approaches to reading the news:

* Read aloud the news story to students as they follow along.

* Students might first read the news story to themselves; then call on individual students to read the news aloud for the class.

* Photocopy the news story onto a transparency and project it onto a screen. (Or use your classroom computer's projector to project the story.) Read the story aloud as a class, or ask students to take turns reading it.

* Arrange students into small groups. Each student in the group will read a paragraph of the story. As that student reads, others might underline important information or write a note in the margin of the story. After each student finishes reading, others in the group might say something -- a comment, a question, a clarification -- about the text.

More Facts to Share

You might share these additional facts with students after they have read this week's news story.

  • The New Horizons spacecraft is about the size of a baby grand piano.
  • Pluto is the only planet that has not yet been explored by a spacecraft. New Horizons won't actually land on the planet. Instead, it will pass close by and take pictures that will be sent back to Earth.
  • New Horizons was powered into space at speeds of 36,000 mile per hour by an Atlas V rocket. About 43 minutes into the mission, the spacecraft separated successfully from its rocket launcher.
  • New Horizons passed Earth's moon about nine hours into its mission. It should reach the planet Jupiter in a little more than a year, according to NASA. Around that time, the spacecraft will perform a special "slingshot" maneuver where it will use the power of Jupiter's gravity to increase its traveling speed to 47,000 mph. The remainder of the journey will be a "straight-line" trip to Pluto, which will still be more than 8 years away.
  • A jet traveling at typical jet speeds would take 1,000 years to make the trip to Pluto.
  • Ten years might seem like a long time for a space mission, but scientists say the payoff will be when New Horizons reaches Pluto. "The New Horizons mission is going somewhere no mission has gone before," said project scientist Hal Weaver.
  • The first object in the Kuiper (KY-per) Belt was identified in 1992. Since then, hundreds more asteroid-like objects have been identified. Some astronomers now believe that Pluto might not even be a planet. Instead, it might be a very large Kuiper Belt object.
  • The English schoolgirl who in 1930 suggested the name Pluto for the ninth planet was invited to observe the launch of the New Horizons spacecraft. Unfortunately, she was unable to attend. She is a retired schoolteacher whose name is Venetia Burney Phair.

Comprehension Check

Revisit the Anticipation Guide at the top of this lesson; ask students to respond again to the statements in it.

  • Pluto is the planet farthest from the sun. (true; note -- some students might say that there is debate about whether Pluto is a planet or not, and others might say that scientists think there might be planets beyond Pluto)
  • The planet Pluto is 3 million miles from Earth. (false, Pluto is 3 billion miles from Earth)
  • It would take a spacecraft almost 10 years to reach Pluto. (true)
  • Just like Earth, the planet Pluto has one moon. (true; note -- scientists believe that Pluto might have two more moons but that has not yet been proven)
  • The fastest spacecraft travel at speeds of about 10,000 miles per hour. (false, the New Horizons spacecraft will travel at speeds estimated to be 47,000 miles per hour)

Recalling Detail
You might follow-up that activity by asking some of these questions:

  • When was the New Horizons spacecraft launched? (on January 19)
  • How long the spacecraft take to get to Pluto? (about 10 years)
  • When was the planet Pluto discovered? (1930)
  • How did Pluto get its name? (Its name was suggested by an 11-year-old girl. In Roman mythology, Pluto was the son of Saturn; he had two brothers, Neptune and Jupiter.)

Think About the News
Discuss the Think About the News question that appears on the students' news page. In addition, you might ask Scientists expect to get information back from New Horizons in 2015. How do you think life on Earth will be different then?

Follow-Up Activities

Science -- the Solar System. How large are the planets? The planets vary in size. Jupiter, for example, is the largest planet; and Pluto is the smallest. In order to drive home to students the comparative sizes of the planets, collect the following objects: a grapefruit, a grape, a small marble, two popcorn kernels, two black pepper seeds, a poppy seed, a grain of sand, and a grain of salt. Those objects can be used to represent the relative sizes of the sun and the planets in this way:

The Sun -- grapefruit
Mercury -- grain of sand
Venus -- black pepper seed
Earth -- black pepper seed
Mars -- poppy seed
Jupiter -- grape
Saturn -- small marble
Uranus -- popcorn kernel
Neptune -- popcorn kernel
Pluto -- grain of salt

You can find that information and another demo that uses a 50-foot rope to illustrate relative distance of the planets on the NASAexplores Web site -- see Scale Model of the Solar System. You might also share the perspective of this interesting image, which shows Pluto's size relative to the United States.

Language Arts. Share with students How Do Planets and Their Moons Get Their Names? Scroll down the page just a bit to an explanation of the nine planets' names. Then have students explore how their town or state, or neighboring towns or states, got their names. Finally, you might pose this thinking question: If a new planet was discovered tomorrow, what do you think would be a good name for that planet?


Use the Comprehension Check (above) as an assessment. Or have students work on their own, in their journals or in small groups, to respond to the Think About the News questions on the news story page or in the Comprehension Check section.

Lesson Plan Source

Education World

National Standards

NL-ENG.K-12.2 Reading for Understanding
NL-ENG.K-12.8 Developing Research Skills
NL-ENG.K-12.12 Applying Language Skills

NS.K-4.4 Earth and Space Science
GRADES 5 - 8
NS.5-8.4 Earth and Space Science
GRADES 9 - 12
NS.9-12.4 Earth and Space Science

See recent news stories in Education World's News Story of the Week Archive.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
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