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Solar Energy

Objectives: Students learn how solar panels can be used to generate electrical power and how the size and area of the panels affects energy production. By reading a NASA press release and viewing a NASA eClips video segment, students see how solar energy is used by various NASA satellites and technology.

Mathematics Skill or Topic Area:

Measurement and Geometry

Next Gen Science Framework: PS3.A: Definitions of Energy, PS3.B: Conservation of Energy and Energy Transfer, ETS1: Engineering Design, ETS2.A: Interdependence of Science, Engineering, and Technology

Common Core ELA for Science: RST.6-8.2. Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions. RST.6-8.8. Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text. RST.6-8.9. Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.

Common Core Math Standard: 6.RP.3 Use ratio and rate reasoning to solve real-world and mathematical problems, e.g., by reasoning about tables of equivalent ratios, tape diagrams, double number line diagrams, or equations; 6.RP.3.d Use ratio reasoning to convert measurement units; manipulate and transform units appropriately when multiplying or dividing quantities; 6 Solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, surface area, and volume.

Video Engagement: Solar Power in Space This NASA eClips video segment lets students see how NASA technologies use alternative energy. Solar sails propel spacecraft through space. The International Space Station, or ISS, catches sunlight to provide electricity and oxygen to the station. (3 minutes). View Program

Engage your students with a press release:

Juno Solar Panels Complete Testing

PASADENA, Calif. – NASA's Juno spacecraft was launched in 2011. It will take 5 years to reach Jupiter. When it arrives, it will go into orbit. Astronomers are anxious to find out more about Jupiter's structure, atmosphere and magnetic field. Three massive solar panels will provide all of the electrical power for Juno. The last solar panel was tested in May 2011. It was then folded against the side of the spacecraft in preparation for launch.

This is the first time in history a spacecraft has used solar power so far out in space. In the past, spacecraft such as Galileo, Cassini, Voyager and Pioneer have used the decay of radioactive elements to generate heat, which can then be converted into electricity. These units are called Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTG). They are lightweight and can be used in spacecraft that travel beyond Jupiter where there is very little sunlight. For Jupiter, spacecraft can use either RTGs like Galileo did, or solar panels like Juno will. Near Jupiter, there is enough sunlight to create the electricity from solar panels. The only problem is that you will have to make the solar panels very big to capture enough sunlight. That means that the weight of the spacecraft is very large. Fewer scientific instruments can be brought along.

Jupiter is five times farther from the sun than Earth. To operate on the sun's light that far away, you need big solar panels. Juno's panels are 9 feet wide, by 29 feet long. Sunlight is so dim that far away that they will only generate about 450 watts of electricity. That's equal to about 7 normal incandescent light bulbs in your home. If the arrays were operating at Earth, which is closer to the sun, the same panels would produce almost 14,000 watts of electricity.

Press release date line - May 27, 2011

Press release location: [ Click Here ]

Explore math connections with


Problem I - Area of Rectangles and Complex Shapes - - Solar cells can be attached directly to the outer surface of a satellite to convert sunlight into electricity for the satellite’s instruments. In this problem students will calculate the perimeter of several kinds of satellite surfaces. [Open PDF ]

Problem II - Areas Derived from Scaled Drawings - Each of NASA’s twin Van Allen Probe spacecraft have four solar panel “wings” that provide power to the spacecraft instruments. Students will solve the problems in the attached file to calculate the electrical power the Van Allen satellites can generate. [Open PDF ]

Explain your thinking:

Write your own problem - Using information found in the Math Connection problems, the press release or the video program, create your own math problem. Explain why you set the problem up this way, and how you might find its answer.

Evaluate your understanding:

Challenge Problem - The Juno Spacecraft Solar Panels - The spacecraft has three solar panels, but the amount of solar energy falling on the panels is 27 times less than near Earth. Students calculate how much power Juno will produce from solar energy at Jupiter.

[Open PDF ]



3-D Solar System

Extend your new knowledge - Compare the solar power at various locations in the solar system [ Open PDF ]