Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Alan Alda in Scientific American Frontiers

Teaching Guide
Hands On, Minds On
Planetary Problem Solving
Self Propelled Learning
image of planet

For what could be more beautiful than the heavens which contain all beautiful things --Nicholas Copernicus, 1543

In Alien Worlds, David Latham and his colleagues succeed in detecting a planet outside our own solar system. Today, these scientists can infer very little about the actual surface conditions of extrasolar planets. But thanks to new tools in development that can detect key elements such as carbon dioxide and chlorophyll, we may one day be able determine whether or not these faraway planets could support life. (For more on this topic, check out the Web Feature Is Anybody Out There?) Here on Earth we humans thrive thanks to breathable air, fertile soil, and relatively hospitable temperatures. But what would we need to survive on another planet?


In the following activity, you will get to create your own extrasolar planet, then make the necessary adaptations for your planet to support human life.


Choice of the following depending on the type of model constructed:

  • Circular piece of cardboard from a pizza box (or poster board)
  • Recycled materials such as:
    • boxes
    • newspaper
    • fabric
    • cans
    • yarn
    • etc.
  • Paper and drawing supplies
  • Clay
  • Glue
  • Markers
  • Scissors
  • Tissue paper
  • Constructions paper
  • Other art supplies
  • Food (to make an edible planet)


  1. Create your own planet by answering the following questions:
    • What is the diameter and mass of your planet?
    • What is its density and composition (solid or gaseous)?
    • What is its temperature and distance from its sun(s)?
    • How long does it take for it to rotate on its axis and how long does it take to orbit its sun(s)?
    • Of what is its atmosphere made?
    • What distinctive features does it have?
  2. Create a model of your planet using a circular piece of cardboard, about 30 cm. in diameter.
  3. Place features on your planet using any of the materials listed above. Label the planet's features.
  4. Answer all of the questions listed in # 1 above, either by writing a report, doing a multimedia presentation, creating a web page, designing a poster, drawing a picture, etc.


Could your planet support human life?

  1. Create a list of the elements necessary to sustain human life.
  2. Considering your planet's atmosphere and other distinctive features, how might humans adapt to this new planet? Perhaps people would live in a dome due to a lack of oxygen in the atmosphere. Perhaps your oxygen source comes from the planet's core, and therefore it needs to be pumped to the surface to support life.
  3. Think of what you would need to build or create in order to sustain life on the new planet. What materials would you use and where would you get them? What kind of construction would you need to complete?
  4. Add this new feature to your planet model and change your presentation accordingly.



Imagine that an intelligent civilization has recently been discovered on another planet. If you were asked to write Earth's first communication with these beings,

  • What would you write?
  • How would you describe our planet and the human race?
  • What questions would you ask about their way of life?
  • Due to distances in the universe, research how long it might take to get an answer back

Scientists have launched several messages into space in the hopes that they might one day be intercepted by an intelligent civilization.


The Arecibo Message
The Pioneer 10 Plaque
The Voyager Phonograph


You have received a message from an intelligent life form, but it is written in code that must be deciphered. This situation is simulated in the following activity:

  1. Create a code for writing messages and invent a key which can be used decipher this code. One example might be A=B, B=C, C=D, etc., so that "TQBDF" would be "SPACE."
  2. Write a message to a friend in your code and see if they can decode it. (You may have to give them a clue or two!)
  3. Have your friend write back using the code.
  4. Discuss how well you were able to communicate.


Kepler Mission: A Search for Habitable Planets This space mission is designed to detect and characterize hundreds of Earth-size planets in the Habitable Zone.
NASA Science News With the discovery of extra-Solar planets smaller than Saturn, astronomers are increasingly convinced that other stars harbor planetary systems like our own.
Planets and Satellites Information on all nine planets in our solar system, such as size, density, composition, and moons.


PBS: Voyage to the Milky Way
PBS: Life Beyond Earth

This activity was contributed by Betty Paulsell, Science Coordinator at the Pioneer Ridge Science Education Center, Independence, Missouri.

return to show pageback to top



Noah's Snowball Handmade Humans Robot Independence Alien Worlds I. Robot Teaching guide Science hotline video trailer Resources The Sight of Touch Grow your own brain True or False What's in a dream Monastery of the Mind The Power of Half Contact Search Homepage video trailer Science hotline Teaching guide Resources Profile: Robert Edelman The Knowledge Michelle Geller The brain game