Big or Small: Measure It All
Western Reserve Public Media

Video Supplements: Space
Lift Off!


Students use a very long hall and a roll of toilet paper to illustrate the vastness of the solar system. They then make rockets and shoot them off to measure the distance of their flight.


Students will gain an understanding of the distance between planets. They also will see how variables affect how far a simple rocket will fly. In measuring the distance, students will gain practice in converting measurements from centimeters to meters.


Standards Addressed — Mathematics

Grade 4
Use Measurement Techniques and Tools, Benchmark B

05. Make simple unit conversions within a measurement system; e.g., inches to feet, kilograms to grams, quarts to gallons.

Grade 5
Use Measurement Techniques and Tools, Benchmark B

05. Make conversions within the same measurement system while performing computations.



Part One:


Part Two:

  • Paper

  • Tape

  • Film canister, toilet paper roll or some other small, cylindrical object

  • Straws

  • Measuring device

  • Scissors



Part One: Laying Out the Solar System

  1. Tell students that the planets are very far away and that each sheet of toilet paper represents 10 million miles.

  2. Tape the sun to the floor at one end of a very long hallway. Tape the end of a toilet paper to the floor by the sun.

  3. Carefully unroll the toilet paper. You may want to tape the paper down at various points. Count 3.6 sheets from the sun and place the planet Mercury.

  4. Continue as follows:
  5. Venus is 3.1 sheets from Mercury

    Earth is 2.6 sheets from Venus

    Mars is 3.3 sheets from Earth

    Jupiter is 34.3 sheets from Mars

    Saturn is 40.3 sheets from Jupiter

    Uranus is 90 sheets from Saturn

    Neptune is 101 sheets from Uranus

    If you want to include poor old Pluto — which lost its status as a planet — it is 86.4 sheets from Neptune

  6. Double-check: The earth is 3.6 +3.1 +2.6 = 9.3 sheets from the sun. Each sheet is 10 million miles, so the earth is 93 million miles from the sun.

  7. Ask students what other way they could measure the distance. What would they use — centimeters, meters or kilometers?

  8. Extension #1: Have the students make a scale model of the planets using graph paper with accurate distances. This is a good use of proportion.

  9. Extension #2: Using the scale model, the solar system could be hung from the ceiling.

  10. Extension #3: A light year is 5,880 billion miles (5.88 x 1012 miles). A toilet paper sheet represents 10 million miles. The nearest star is 4.3 light years away. Have the students determine how many toilet paper sheets away the nearest star is. (Answer: The nearest star is 4.3 x 5.88 x 1012 miles away or 25.3 x 1012 miles away. Divide that by 10 million to get the number of toilet paper sheets, and you get 2.53 million sheets.)


Distances of Planets from the Sun

Object Distance (millions of miles) Distance (millions of kilometers)
Mercury 36 59
Venus 67 108
Earth 93 150
Mars 140 225
Jupiter 484 780
Saturn 884 1425
Uranus 1,786 2,880
Neptune 2,799 4,515

(Source: This part of the lesson is adapted from one presented by Dr. Alan Pringle, University of Missouri-Rolla.)


This is a group activity and participation is the key element.


Part 2: Building and Shooting a Rocket

  1. Divide the students into groups of two or three.

  2. Each group will gather necessary materials and build a rocket. Demonstrate building a rocket with the class as follows:
  3. Wrap a piece of paper around a film canister or the end of a roll of toilet paper. (You should have some empty toilet paper rolls if you did the top part of this activity.) Tape it shut. This is the body of the rocket. You will use a straw as the shooting device, so you don’t want to make the body of your rocket longer than the straw.

    Cut out a circle of any size and cut away 1⁄4 of it.

    Make the circle into a cone that fits on the top of the rocket.

    Add fins to the rocket.


  4. Insert a straw into the bottom of your rocket and shoot it. (It is suggested that safety goggles be worn to prevent eye damage.) Practice a few times.

  5. Have a class discussion about the variables and the effect that the variables will have on the distance the rocket flies. Some variables include these:

  6. Diameter of rocket

    Size of cone

    Flap location and size

    Amount of air blown through the straw

    Weight of the rocket (how much tape is used, how heavy the paper is)

    Angle of the launch


  7. After some practice, ask the students to estimate the distance that they think the rocket will go.

  8. Have them shoot the rocket on the solar system course that was laid out on the floor. Measure the distance in centimeters that the rocket flew. As another option, shoot the rocket and simply measure the distance it flew without the solar system course. Centimeters can then be converted to meters.

  9. Have students complete the handout.

  10. You could make this a contest and give a prize for the farthest distance.



Construction — Materials Appropriate materials were selected and creatively modified in ways that made them even better. Appropriate materials were selected and there was an attempt at creative modification to make them even better. Appropriate materials were selected. Inappropriate materials were selected and contributed to a product that performed poorly.
Modification / Testing There was clear evidence of troubleshooting, testing and refinements based on data or scientific principles. There was clear evidence of troubleshooting, testing and refinements. There was some evidence of troubleshooting, testing and refinements. There was little evidence of troubleshooting, testing or refinement.
Function The rocket functions extraordinarily well, holding up under atypical stresses. The rocket functions well, holding up under typical stresses. The rocket functions, but deteriorates under typical stresses. The rocket has fatal flaws in function, with complete failure under typical stresses.
Accuracy of Student Handout The scale drawing is accurate. Distances are accurately measured. There is some distortion in the scale drawing. Distances are accurately measured. There is some distortion in scale drawing and some error in measuring distances. Little attempt is made to do an accurate job on either scale drawing or measurements.

(Source: Rocket idea adapted from NASA — An Educator’s Guide With Activities in Science, Mathematics and Technology, EG-2003-01-06-108-HQ)
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