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Classroom Activity

To trace the development of how a hypothesis changes based on new evidence.

Materials for each team
  • copy of "What Happened to Stardust?" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  1. As part of the scientific investigation of the Stardust crash site, scientists proposed possible theories and made a list of specific wreckage that would confirm or refute their theories. Sometimes the wreckage presented another question to be answered. In this activity, students will follow the process scientists went through.

  2. Distribute copies of the "What Happened to Stardust?" student handout. While they watch the program, have students fill in the information about each piece of evidence (i.e., where it was found, the condition in which it was found) and possible conclusions. Direct students to look only for the information that deals with what happened to the plane, not about why it crashed, which is presented in the latter part of the program.

  3. After students have watched the program, as a class review the information they collected, as well as any additional evidence students saw presented. Have students answer the questions about the fate of Stardust. After reviewing conclusions about what happened to Stardust, clear up any remaining questions students may have.

  4. As an extension, have students research current unsolved plane crashes. How many are there? Have students note the first hypotheses that surface immediately after a plane crash. How do any final conclusions differ from initial ideas regarding the crash? How certain are investigators about their conclusions? What questions remain?

Activity Answer

Investigators working to unravel the mystery of what happened to the Stardust flight began their investigation with one idea of what may have happened and then modified their hypothesis as they discovered new evidence.

After examining all the wreckage, investigators concluded that the plane flew into the mountainside—the wreckage was spread too far for a nose dive into the ground, but not far enough for a bomb. But one question remained: Why was the wreckage so far from the mountain where the plane was thought to crash?

This inconsistency in the evidence generated a new theory: The glacier below the mountain may have transported the wreckage from close to the mountain where the plane crashed to a new position farther away. And if the wreckage had been carried inside the glacier this would explain why it was hidden for 53 years.

Once they had solved the mystery of what happened to the plane, investigators were still left with the question of why it occurred. After looking at the available evidence, they concluded that severe headwinds had a devastating impact on Stardust's progress, unknown to the crew, which kept it from travelling all the way across the mountains before it began to turn south toward Mount Tupangato. Thinking they were near their destination, crew members may have begun the plane's descent too early, sending the plane into the mountain.

The following is a sampling of some of the evidence and additional information about the Stardust disappearance. Students may generate additional ideas.


Additional Information

Rolls Royce engine

found on glacier below Mount Tupangato

first pieces of wreckage

found more than 0.62 miles (1 kilometer) from mountain

two main wheels

found farther down the mountain from wreckage

brake is engaged

various wreckage

found scattered, but contained within a kilometer or so

human remains

brutally torn

tail landing gear, minus its wheel

found 547 yards (500 meters) or more away from main wheels


propeller's blades turned back; propeller not feathered

Links and Books


National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
490 L'Enfant Plaza, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20594
(202) 314-6000

The independent Federal agency that investigates every U.S. civil aviation accident. The NTSB's investigative process is detailed online at:, and updates on major investigations and statistics on aviation accidents are online at:


Post, Austin, and Edward R. Lachapelle. Glacier Ice. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, May 2000.
Combines more than 100 photographs with a discussion of the effects of glaciers on the landscape, glacier formation and mass balance, flow and fluctuations, and surface details. Includes ground-based photographs from South American ranges.

Web Sites

NOVA Online—Vanished!
Provides program-related articles, interviews, interactive activities, resources, and more.

Forensic Science Links
Provides links to many branches of forensic science, including those that play a role in plane crash investigations.

All about Glaciers
Includes facts, historic photos, an extensive glossary, and other links to glacier information. The Glacier Story page offers a quick tour through the life of a glacier.


The "What Happened to Stardust?" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards:

Grades 5-8

Science as inquiry

Science Standard G:
History and Nature of Science

Nature of Science

  • It is part of scientific inquiry to evaluate the results of scientific investigations, experiments, observations, theoretical models, and the explanations proposed by other scientists. Evaluation includes reviewing the experimental procedures, examining the evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggesting alternative explanations for the same observations.

Grades 9-12

Science as inquiry

Science Standard G:
History and Nature of Science

Nature of Scientific Knowledge

  • Scientific explanations must meet certain criteria. First and foremost, they must be consistent with experimental and observational evidence about nature and must make accurate predictions, when appropriate, about the systems being studied. They should also be logical, respect the rules of evidence, be open to criticism, report methods and procedures, and make knowledge public.

Teacher's Guide

Video is required for this activity