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Eyes In The SkyEyes-In-The-Sky

  • Subject: Space Science
  • |
  • Grade(s): 6-8
  • |
  • Duration: Two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. One purpose of satellites is to transmit information.
2. Satellites have the ability to transmit information virtually in an instant.
3. Before satellite technology was developed, information took longer to reach the general public.


For this lesson, you will need:
Research materials on satellites and satellite technology
Computer with Internet access


1. In discussion, assess what your students know about satellite and satellite technology. Determine whether they are aware that television news reports and visual images are transmitted instantaneously by satellite—much more quickly than they could be if satellite technology did not exist.
2. If students need background information about satellites, have them do some preliminary research using print materials and the Internet. Their research should give them some notion of the history of satellite technology, from Sputnik to the present.
3. Hold a postresearch discussion in which you lead students to consider that, in present-day society, we take for granted that information from anywhere around the globe can be available to us in an instant. Question students briefly about the implications for society. Ask them to think of ways in which life might have been different before satellite technology was developed. Then tell the class they are going to conduct interviews with older friends or family members who can shed light on these questions.
4. Have each student plan to interview at least three adults who have witnessed the recent transition in the way we receive global information. The adults interviewed might remember, for example, Olympic sporting events before satellite coverage and World War II news reels.
5. With the class, brainstorm a list of interview questions students might ask. The following are examples:
  • Before satellites, how did you learn about major news events from around the world?
  • Did it take minutes, hours, or days for news of world events to reach the general public?
  • Were news photographs immediately available the way they are now?
  • How did information travel?
  • What was the impact of Sputnik?
  • Do you think the availability of instant information via satellite is helpful or harmful to society?
6. Instruct students to prepare for their interviews by contacting potential interviewees, asking if they would be willing to participate in the project, and setting up appointments. An appointment should set an end time as well as a beginning time for the interview.
7. Next, students should write down the actual questions they plan to ask. They should prepare the materials they will need for their interviews—note cards or a notepad and pens or pencils to take notes. Alternatively, they could tape their interviews, but only with the consent of each interviewee. A student planning to tape an interview should plan to bring along a tape recorder with a microphone, extra batteries, and an extra tape.
8. Go over with students the rules of etiquette for an interview:
  • Be on time.
  • Dress appropriately.
  • Do not interrupt while the interviewee is speaking.
  • If you feel the interviewee has not adequately answered a question, ask further questions politely.
  • Do not go over the estimated interview time unless the interviewee agrees to do so.
  • Thank the interviewee politely at the end.
9. After students have conducted their interviews, ask them to discuss what they learned and determine whether there were any common ideas and experiences among the adults they spoke with.
10. Conclude by asking each student to write a paragraph expressing his or her opinion, based on information learned in at least three interviews, about whether the availability of instant information has made the world a better place than it was before satellite technology existed. Students should use quotations from their interviews when appropriate. Have students share and compare their paragraphs with those of classmates.

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Have students do more extensive research to learn details of how information and visual images are instantaneously transmitted by satellites.

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Discussion Questions

1. Should there be a limit placed on the number of satellites that are allowed to orbit the Earth? Why or why not? If so, who should set this limit?
2. There are thousands of satellites currently in orbit around the Earth. What different types of satellites are there? Which are the most important?
3. Global Positioning System technology, a satellite system that allows people to determine precisely where they are on the Earth’s surface at any given time using a remote link-up, is becoming readily available. So far, the technology is being used primarily for navigational purposes, but scientists are coming up with new uses for it every day. What new uses can you dream up? How could determining your precise location – or someone else’s – prove to be useful?
4. Discuss the impact of satellite technology on the science of meteorology. Why are satellites so useful?
5. There are approximately 7,400 unused satellites currently orbiting the Earth. Should they be recovered and disposed of, or is it acceptable to let them orbit indefinitely? Who should be responsible for this cleanup?
6. Currently, satellite technology is somewhat limited in that only objects of a certain size on the Earth’s surface can be viewed from above. If there were no such technological limitations, however – a prospect that some scientists consider inevitable – we could easily use satellites to pry into currently secretive areas. With this idea in mind, should global limits be set for how invasive the eye of a satellite can be? Why or why not?

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You can evaluate your students on their paragraphs using the following three-point rubric:
Three points:distinctly expresses writer’s opinion about the benefits and/or detriments of satellite technology; backs up opinion by clearly citing abundant information learned in interviews; at least three interviewees quoted; no errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics.
Two points:adequately expresses writer’s opinion; backs up opinion by citing some information learned in interviews; only two interviewees quoted; some errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics.
One point:opinion unclearly expressed; opinion backed up by little information learned in interviews; only one or two interviewees quoted; many errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics.
You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by determining how much information should be considered adequate to back up an opinion.

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Mapping the Past
One of the main ways that people use satellite technology is to provide aerial photographs. Discuss with your students the importance of aerial photographs in accurate mapping, making the point that, before satellite technology existed, only limited aerial photos could be taken by observers flying in planes, helicopters, or hot air balloons. Before flight was possible, aerial images and maps were mostly estimations, no matter how carefully they were constructed. Divide your class into groups, and ask each group to create an aerial map of an area surrounding and including your school (without, of course, using any technology but their own imaginations). Maps should cover at least one city block’s worth of territory, and students should include a legend indicating an approximate distance scale. Let students know that, while they should work as carefully as possible, this is only an exercise and you expect their work to be rough. Have each group present its map to the class, explaining any difficulties it had creating it. When all groups have made their presentations, lead a discussion in which students compare their maps and the experiences they had making them. If possible, acquire an actual aerial satellite map of the area around your school, and compare it with your students’ work. Conclude with a discussion of the ways in which satellite aerial photos might be used.

Mission Control
Have your students work in small groups to plan their own missions for new satellites. Ask each group to keep in mind the following guidelines when developing its mission:
  • The budget for the mission is unlimited.
  • Each group must include a detailed description of the uses of its new satellite.
  • Each group must justify the importance of these uses.
In designing their missions, groups may want to consider the following questions:
  • What will be the orbital pattern of the satellite?
  • Will the satellite move quickly or hover over the same spot on Earth?
  • Will the satellite have a classified or a public status?
When plans for missions are complete, ask each group to share its work with the class. Lead your students in deliberating about which mission they would fund, if they had the resources. Which project would be most beneficial for humankind, and why?

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Suggested Readings

Communication Satellites
by D. J. Herda, Watts, 1988.
ISBN 0-531-10473-7
LC 87-19875
The history and use of communication satellites.

by R. Conrad Stein, Children's Press, 1985.
ISBN 0-516-02770-0
LC 85-14949

Research Satellites
by D. J. Herda, Watts, 1987.
ISBN 0-531-10311-0
LC 86-24225

Satellite Technology and Its Applications
by P. R. Chetty, Tab Books, 1991.
ISBN: 0-8306-9688-1

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It's about TIMED [PDF]
Find information and additional activities on this topic at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab website.

What is the Near-Earth Rendezvous Mission? [PDF]
Find information and additional activities on this topic at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab website.

Build Your Own NEAR Shoemaker Spacecraft [PDF]
Find information and additional activities on this topic at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab website.

Studying Earth's Environment from Space
Get your students started using real data collected by Earth observing satellites. SEES consists of four modules: Stratospheric Ozone, Global Land Vegetation, Ocean and Atmospheric Interactions, and Polar Sea Ice Processes. Each module contains background material for introduction and discussion in the classroom and computer lab resources.

WhaleNet's Satellite Tagging Observation Program - STOP
After watching the segment on how satellites are used to monitor the migration of elephants in Kenya, check out a similar effort related to whale migration. Read the story of how Metompkin, a nine-year-old female Northern Right Whale, was tagged with a transmitter and then, using satellite transmissions, her movement was plotted around the Atlantic Ocean. Blank maps, recent satellite feed data, and suggested questions for analysis may be downloaded from this website.

Internet Education Resources: Selected NASA Projects
Arranged by grade level and topic, many of the online interactive student projects available here require the use of satellite remote sensed data and imagery provided by NASA, all of which is downloadable directly from this website. This is a must-see site for educators interested in motivating students with hands-on problem solving experiences. Don't forget to check out the "Exhibits" link.

NASA's Observatorium
Experience the "wow factor" yourself at this website where you will find a galaxy of current and archived images on a great variety of topics relating to satellite remote sensors. Explanations of the research relating to each topical set of images is provided and links relevant to that topic are offered. Relate what you find at this site to that segment of Eyes in the Sky showing the President's reaction to satellite images documenting the rapid destruction of Guatemala's rain forests. For images shown at this site, "wow" is an understatement!

WeatherNet: Radar and Satellite Menu
One of my favorite Internet pastimes is to drop into this website and look down on different parts of the earth from the variety of satellites offering live or very current images of this big blue sphere. Of course while you are here, think about the many ways you can encourage students to understand meteorology through these remote sensing satellites.

The Satellite's Encyclopedia
TSE is a searchable hypertext document built around a dictionary containing over 1700 satellites. Each satellite fact sheet gives minimum information (launch date, country of origin, official identification, etc.). Data on the payload and functionality of various satellite types is included.

Infoseek: Find a Street Map
At this incredible site provided by Infoseek see how far we have come in being able to map the world with the aid of remote sensors and computer technology. At this website you can type in your street address, or anyone else's address, and in a few moments you will be able to zoom in on your neighborhood.

Remote Sensing Data and Information
We've saved the best website for last. Everything you ever wanted to know about remote sensing is here. This site has over 100 links of examples with live and archived images. Check out the link titled "Remote Sensing Tutorial."

Geostationary Satellite Browse Server
Get real! This is the place to start your exploration of earth from space. View and download real-time GOES Imagery from satellite remote sensors in geostationary orbits above various points on Earth. Pick the satellite you want to browse and compare the infrared, visible, and water vapor imagery in real-time. Discovery Channel's program Eyes in the Sky will explain how images like these are acquired and how they are being used to better understand the earth.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    satellite
Definition:An object, man-made or natural, which orbits a planet.
Context:We have learned to launch the man-made satellites featured in Eyes in the Sky by understanding the laws of physics explaining how natural satellites, such as the moon, orbit the earth.

speaker    launch vehicle
Definition:A conveyance for moving a satellite from the surface of the earth into orbit around the earth.
Context:Controlled explosions detonated in a launch vehicle's rocket engines provide the power for lifting satellites from launch pads into earth orbit.

speaker    remote sensor
Definition:A device placed at some distance from human experience which reacts to a physical stimulus.
Context:Satellite remote sensors technologically extend human sensation and experience by responding to physical stimuli and transmitting that reaction back down to earth.

speaker    synchronous orbit
Definition:The phenomena that occurs when two bodies, such as the earth and an orbiting satellite, have identical rotation and revolution periods. (Often referred to as "geostationary orbit" when related to satellites synchronously orbiting the earth.)
Context:Communications satellites must be placed in stable synchronous orbit above the earth so that they are always above the same point on the earth with the same side of the satellite (side with transmitting/receiving antennae) facing the earth.

speaker    wow factor
Definition:The emotional reaction looked for in evaluating the potential success of a new product when it is first introduced to a test user.
Context:After observing satellite photographs, the wow factor played an important role in the government of Guatemala's actions to save their rain forests.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level:6-8
Subject area:Science
Understands the interactions of science, technology and society.
Knows that science helps drive technology, as it provides knowledge for better understanding, instruments and techniques.

Grade level:6-8
Subject area:Science
Understands the interactions of science, technology and society.
Knows that technology is essential to science because it enables observations of phenomena that are far beyond the capabilities of scientists due to factors such as distance, location, size and speed.

Grade level:9-12
Subject area:Science
Understands the interactions of science, technology and society.
Knows that science often advances with the introduction of new technologies and solving technological problems often results in new scientific knowledge; new technologies often extend the current levels of scientific understanding and introduce new arenas of research.

Grade level:6-8
Subject area:Geography
Understands how human actions modify the physical environment.
Understands the environmental consequences of people changing the physical environment (e.g., the effects of ozone depletion, climate change, deforestation, land degradation, soil salinization and acidification, ocean pollution, groundwater-quality decline, using natural wetlands for recreational and housing development.

Grade level:9-12
Subject area:Geography
Understands global development and environmental issues.
Understands contemporary issues in terms of Earth's physical and human systems (e.g., the processes of land degradation and desertification; the consequences of population growth or decline in a developed economy; the consequences of a world temperature increase).

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Karen Kennedy, former high school chemistry and physics teacher, educational consultant.

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