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Case-lesson “Mysteries and denouements of the Solar System”
Case-lesson “Mysteries and denouements of the Solar System”

Category: Science, nature and man

Level (grade): 8 – 11

Subject: The unknown and new science

Objective: Find out what mysteries the Solar system has prepared for humankind, and what clues to them exist.

What information is waiting for me here?

  • How many planets are in the Solar System?
  • How to predict weather on Titan?
  • When will a hurricane on Jupiter stop?
  • Where will the solar wind bring us?
  • Is there life on Mars and Ceres?
6 scans of the subjects, phenomena and practices:

Solar system – our supposedly thoroughly explored home – still conceals lots of mysteries. And the more intense the studies are, the more information and knowledge mankind receives – the more questions arise in front of next generations of scientists and engineers.

On a cosmic scale the Solar system is our “little world”, our “shell”. With examination of this “shell” and deep understanding of it mankind will have a chance to “hatch out” and achieve a new level of knowledge and understanding of the Universe and Space.

Therefore, an important goal of mankind is knowledge and technology, which will be able to provide the key to the mysteries of the Solar system and space as a whole.

Usage of a telescope or programs (services), giving access to research telescopes, is possible on the lesson.


Astronomy (astronomical mystery)

How many planets are there in the Solar system? The correct answer, as it turns out, is unknown even to scientists and the question is still open!

There are multiple versions. Which ones? Let’s consider them seriatim.

The version of 2014 states that the mysterious X planet is nonexistent. It was believed that it should have been located farther than Pluto… Pluto, as it is known, has lost the “status” of a planet. Now it’s just the largest dwarf planet in the Solar system, or trans-Neptunian planet as it is called by scientists. The “trans-Neptunian” title (ETNO) means that its orbit lies beyond the orbit of Neptune. And what is the physical state of its substance: is it all gases or solids… or maybe a mixture thereof?

Pluto has “cheated”. But scientists suddenly noticed it in 2000.


But the version of 2015 states that there are at least two other planets beyond Neptune’s orbit! So, instead of one Pluto, scientists talk about few “new” planets of the Solar system. How did they come to such conclusion?

After analyzing the orbits of 13 extreme trans-Neptunian objects (ETNO) – distant bodies such as dwarf planets Sedna and 2012 VP113, whose orbits around Sun lie just beyond Pluto and Neptune – some scientists have come to a conclusion that there may be at least two planets larger than Earth in size (planet X and planet Y) out there. Here is an example of already discovered trans-Neptunian objects:


Theoretically, ETNO’s orbits should be equal to 150 a. u. from Sun. Recall that one astronomical unit is equal to 150 million kilometers (the distance from Earth to Sun). The inclination of their orbits must be within the range of zero degrees. But the theory is not consistent with reality! 13 ETNO objects have orbits with an average distance of 150 to 525 a. u. and orbital inclination of approximately 20 degrees.

“The excess of objects with unexpected orbital parameters suggests that there are some invisible forces that alter the distribution of ETNO’s orbital elements, and we believe that the most probable explanation is the presence of unknown planets beyond Neptune and Pluto,” the lead researcher Carlos de la Fuente Marcos says. “The exact number is unknown, but our calculations predict at least two planets within our solar system.”


In order to get the exact answer whether there are the mysterious “huge” planets, and how many of them, we need new technologies that will extend the research capabilities of mankind. All we can do is wait and evolve!


Turn on your imagination and think about technology that could help in discovering new mysterious planets of the Solar system. And do we really need this?

For your answer to be not just fictional but scientific, search the information about ETNO discoveries and technologies applied in the process.

Climatology (climatic mysteries and clues)

Weather change, climate surprises and cataclysms are present outside Earth as well. Some planets and their satellites are able to create truly extraordinary climate surprises. And not even surprises but mysteries for they have yet to acquire intelligible explanations.

The weather of Titan (Saturn’s moon). Just like Earth, Titan has its seasons. Each season on Titan lasts approximately seven Earth years, and the full “year” (seasons’ complete cycle) happens once in 29 Earth years.

The last season change on Titan occurred in 2009. In its northern hemisphere winter gave way to spring, while in the southern part summer changed for autumn. However, in May 2012 during the fall season in the southern hemisphere, the “Cassini” spacecraft took photos of a giant polar vortex formed at the south pole of the satellite. After seeing these pictures scientists were puzzled when they realized that the vortex was formed at an altitude of 300 kilometers above Titan’s surface. “So what,” you might say… But according to scientists’ calculations that just could not happen! This vortex was formed to highly and its temperature didn’t “fit” into the theoretical predictions! Perhaps, “weather forecast” can be erroneous not only on Earth?

By analyzing the spectral data of sunlight reflected by the atmosphere of Titan, scientists have been able to detect signs of hydrogen cyanide particles’ presence. And this, in turn, would mean that all our “fantasies” about Titan are fundamentally incorrect. The presence of hydrogen cyanide must show that the upper layers of the moon’s atmosphere should be at least 100 degrees Celsius colder than it was previously thought. But during the change of seasons the atmosphere in the southern hemisphere of Titan has began to cool faster than it was expected. Yes, yes, “winter has crept insensibly”.


One of the “scientific” explanations of the error in the forecast of “Titan weather” is the following: as the atmospheric circulation during the change of seasons drives huge volume of gas to the south, hydrogen cyanide concentration rises and cools nearby air. The reduction of sunlight’s impact during the winter season cools the southern hemisphere just as strongly.

But we will have the possibility to verify this assumption only in 2017, on the day of “local for Titan” summer solstice. Let’s wait?

Jovian storm. A great red spot on Jupiter's surface is nothing but a hurricane, which has been raging for several centuries.

Scientists predict that the hurricane had had to stop a few decades ago. Why had this not happen?

Scientists explain this phenomenon as follows: other “small tornadoes” are being formed nearby this hurricane, so they are being absorbed by the hurricane and hence fueling it.

There is an alternative explanation, emanated from a theory of Pedram Hassanzadeh (scholar of Harvard University) in 2013. According to this theory, the motion of vortical cold gases flows that move up and hot gases flows that move down inside the giant hurricane allows to recover some energy in its center.

The color of the spot – hurricane – itself is mysterious. One of the “fresh” hypotheses states that Jupiter's Great Red Spot is a kind of “sunburn” of the upper layer of clouds, and the lower layers are white or rather grayish. Scientists who support this theory believe that red color of the vortex is formed due to exposure to Sun’s ultraviolet light, seeping through the ammonia composition of gas of the upper layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Only further research will allow to determine the “winner” among the versions.


Look for information on climate mysteries inherent to our planet Earth. Is there an unambiguous explanation of them? Prepare a little (about 3 paragraphs) message on this subject.

Physics (physical mysteries)
Electronic shield of Earth. In 1958, James Van Allen of the University of Iowa found a couple of radiation belts encircling our planet at an altitude of 40 000 kilometers and consisting of electrons and protons of high energy. These belts are held around the planet by Earth’s magnetic field. Observation of the belts has shown that they are alternately compressed and expanded under the influence of energy emitted by solar flares.


In 2013, Daniel Baker of the University of Colorado found a third structure between the inner and the outer Van Allen belts. Baker called this structure the “storage belt”. It works as a widening and narrowing invisible shield that blocks the effects of the “deadly electrons”. These electrons, located at an altitude of 16 000 kilometers, can be destructive not only to humans in space, but also to equipment of artificial satellites.

“These electrons act as if they collide with a glass wall. Something is being created around our planet, a kind of force field, which we can see in various sci-fi movies. This is an incredibly mysterious phenomenon,” Baker says.

Scientists have developed several theories that could, at least partially, explain the essence of this invisible shield. However, none of these theories is final and confirmed.

However, the charged particles’ flows may be those “wings”, which will transport research equipment to the outskirts of the Solar system. Owing to such technology we may acquire the ability to solve its mysteries!

How does such technology work? The charged particles in the solar wind will urge an electric sail – e-sail. The idea has been proposed by a researcher of Finnish Meteorological Institute Pekka Janhunen. The sail consists of an apparatus surrounded by 20 wires. The wires generate positively charged electric field. Protons of the solar wind, “traveling” at a speed of above 750 kilometers per second, are repelled by this electric field, and thereby “push” the spacecraft forward. Negatively charged particles of the solar wind are extinguished by a kind of “electron gun” so that the electric sail maintains positively charged electric field.

If sunlight, pushing the solar sail, is getting significantly weaker when the spacecraft reaches the asteroid belt, the solar wind is still “blowing” strongly. Eventually the e-sail can be accelerated to 150 km/s.

This means that space probes can reach Jupiter in just two years and Pluto – in five.

In 2018 a small space probe will hoist the sail and begin its journey to a distant asteroid. It will become the first NASA’s spacecraft, which will go beyond Earth’s orbit solely by the solar wind. Such technology could pave the way for lower-cost study of the Solar system and, eventually, interstellar space.

Electrical mysteries are generated not merely by Earth. Venus is not far behind in its “electrical inscrutability”. Earthshine of Venus is one of such mysteries. Faint glow that can be seen on the dark side of Venus was first discovered in 1643. Since then it has been observed multiple of times, but this phenomenon still lacks a satisfactory explanation.

In accordance with one of the versions, gray light is caused by the planet’s atmospheric electricity: frequent lightning strikes illuminate the Venusian sky. However, the Cassini spacecraft, flying past the planet, has failed to detect high-frequency noise, which such lightning should have caused.

Perhaps, an apparatus with the electric sail will help find a clue to this mystery as well.


Try to create a route that a spacecraft with an electric sail should fly to explore the Solar system. What tasks does it have to perform in the first place? This task can be issued as homework or a project objective.

Geology (geological mysteries)

Equatorial ridge of Iapetus. Automatic interplanetary station “Cassini”, which became the first artificial satellite of Saturn in 2004, has discovered a majestic ridge on Iapetus with the height of 18 km (Mount Everest, by comparison, is approximately two times lower).


This ridge stretches almost across the whole equator of Saturn’s moon. According to one theory, the mysterious Iapetus had previously had its own ring, which later settled in the form of a mountain range.

Other researchers suggest that the ridge had been formed as a result of a collision of the moon and an asteroid, what had caused seismic activity.

Mercurial “spider”. This strange geological formation was photographed in 2008 by the Messenger spacecraft, flying near the smallest planet of the Solar system. It is a system of grooves originating from a common center in the middle of Caloris Planitia. These grooves extend for hundreds of kilometers.

Scientists called the formation “Pantheon Fossae” in honor of the similar structure of the Roman Pantheon’s dome, although they still call it a “spider” among themselves.


Causes of the formation of the mysterious structures on Mercury are unknown. Scientists speculate that the grooves could appear as a result of specific volcanic activity on the planet.

“Ugly” Miranda. Even NASA scientists have once called fifth-largest moon of Uranus the “Frankenstein's monster”. That's because Miranda was molded of different badly matching pieces. Between these “pieces” there are ridges and valleys, some of which are 12 times deeper than the famous Grand Canyon.


According to one theory, Miranda had once been split by a giant asteroid, but its pieces were not scattered but pulled to each other again, creating such a shapeless structure.

Only further research will help unravel these mysteries. And perhaps it will even give us a “key” to other mysteries of the Solar system.

Chemistry (chemical mysteries)
Martian Methane. The observations of methane on Mars have long been controversial. At first it was found, and then for a long time methane has just “disappeared”.

Scientists have even developed special models, taking into account modern ideas about the Martian “chemistry”. In accordance with these models, if methane really existed on Mars, it would stay there for 300 years and during this period would be evenly distributed throughout the atmosphere. But because the models did not explain its presence, location and rapid disappearance, all findings were considered questionable, and the equipment, which, granted, were working at maximum capacity on Mars, was accused of the results.

“In this context, when we were all pretty sure that the collected data should be at least not completely accurate, more precise measurements would have helped make a decision,” researchers from the Andalusian Earth Sciences Institute say.

With a special TLS analyzer unit, the Curiosity spacecraft has found concentration levels of methane in the range of 0.7 : 1 000 000 000 (by volume), and confirmed that the 10-times increase of this amount occurs in six Sol making it 7 : 1 000 000 000.

“This background parameter means that approximately 5 thousand tons of methane are constantly present in the atmosphere,” Dr. Chris Webster, a member of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory who heads the research says. “On Earth, by comparison, there are about 500 million tons of methane in the atmosphere. Its concentration reaches about 1800 : 1 000 000 000 by volume”.

New data is based on observations carried out during one Martian year (which equals to almost two Earth’s years), including the study of Gale crater by Curiosity spacecraft.

On Earth, 95% of methane is of organic origin. Scientists do not lose hope that the Martian methane can also be of organic origin. Methane, which consists of four hydrogen atoms bonded to a carbon atom, is the main component of natural gas on Earth. Astrobiologists are interested in “methane data” because terrestrial organisms secrete large amounts of this gas at the assimilation of nutrients. Perhaps, Martian organisms do the same?


So far, the leaders of Curiosity expedition cannot determine the exact source of methane, but they believe that its origin may exist due to deposits of methane hydrates, which are periodically destroyed under the influence of some unknown factors.

Water of Ceres. NASA’s space research unit Dawn studied Ceres, a dwarf planet, located in our Solar system. The space probe approached it in March 2015, and the basic research was conducted in May-June.

What is so important about “baby” Ceres? Dwarf planets are the ones that may contain vital information about life in the Solar system! And Ceres is the most mysterious of them in this respect. Therefore, it is the key to a question: can a protoplanet support life?

As far as scientists know, there are three components necessary for life: energy source, liquid water and chemical “building blocks” such as carbon. Besides the fact that large volumes of water, including water in a liquid form, may be present on Ceres, Ceres itself is close enough to Sun to receive a sufficient amount of solar heat.

Science is still unaware whether the dwarf planet has its own internal source of heat. Also, nothing is known about the crucial carbohydrate compounds. Hopefully, the Dawn space mission will be able to answer all these questions.

So, if there is water on Ceres, its “biological” chances are increasing significantly. Herschel space telescope was able to capture giant jets of steam that the dwarf planet occasionally throws in the outer space. Geysers have been found in dark areas of the planet.

According to one theory, these are the places where Ceres actively absorbs sunlight: ice is rapidly converted into steam, which is discharged to the outside. Other scientists suggest the presence of volcanic activity not related to water.

And now the Dawn spacecraft, flying extremely close (in astronomical terms) to Ceres, has found several odd flashes. Here is how the mysterious bright spots look like:


But only further research will be able to establish their origin and determine whether they are geysers, volcanoes or something else entirely!


Which earth processes produce methane? Can the presence of methane be an evidence of similarity of the processes on Earth and Mars? Do Earth's living organisms use methane and how?

Music (mysterious sounds of space)

Here’s a “compilation” of five space sounds. Some of them belong to the Solar system:

These are actually radio or plasma waves, “translated” into sound waves for convenience.

So, what “soundtracks” does our Solar system offer us?

The first ones you’ll hear will be “horrific” sounds that NASA's Cassini spacecraft registered as radio bursts of Saturn’s poles in April 2002. Oscillations in frequency and time correspond to the activity of Saturn’s auroras, like our own radio bursts because of the northern and southern lights. Scientists believe that this complex strip of high and low tones has come from a variety of radio sets, moving along Saturn’s magnetic field near the polar regions. Some even believe that those are “aliens’ conversations”. 

Voyager 1 became the next “soloist” when it entered the interstellar space (not considering the Oort cloud) in 2012. This spacecraft is considered to be the most distant wanderer outside our Earth. It took Voyager 35 years to hear the sound of dense plasma (ionized gas), vibrating during the collision with a wave of solar eruptions. Next you can hear the “xylophone melody” of the comet 67P/Churyumov – Gerasimenko, recorded by Rosetta spacecraft in August 2014. Scientists believe that this music is born due to fluctuations in the magnetic field of the comet’s environment. To make this music audible to the human ear, the frequencies have been amplified approximately in 10 000 times. But even now the mystery of how these fluctuations work still remains. Then we hear the whistling sound of Jupiter’s lightning, recorded by Voyager. When the emitted waves enter the plasma above the planet, high frequencies travel faster than low ones along the magnetic field of Jupiter. That is why we hear the effects of “otherworldly” whistle.


Try to figure out what musical styles the sounds of the Solar system from the scan belong to. In your opinion, can they be considered the music of future?

Accelerated and interactive methods

“Space lotto” game

The essence of the game: The game is actually a type of conventional lotto. A teacher prepares card-chips with names of the elements of the Solar system (planets, moons, asteroids, and other objects – these are the teacher’s choice), and large cards with fragments of a “map” – the image of the Solar system with indications of these objects. It is better to immediately specify how many objects can be marked on the big map – 5, 8, 10, etc. – the same number for all cards. The teacher hands the large cards out to the students, and then, as in the usual lotto game, pulls out smaller cards from a bag or a box and names the objects out loud.

Here are the examples of possible “maps”:




Students who have this object on their cards mark it with a chip or in any other way (with a paper badge, chip from any game, button etc.). A student who fills their card first wins. Bingo!

OBJECTIVE: Activation of attention, concentration, ability to listen and hear, the ability to filter information, with simultaneous consolidation of school material.
Lesson’s summary




Gained results and acquired competence:

Knowledge about the modern technologies used in space exploration

Knowledge of the physical processes and chemical laws inherent in the solar system,

the boundaries of their applicability.

Knowledge about the modern research fields and challenges of the science of future.



90 minutes (double lesson)


Locations of the lesson::

The case-lesson is conducted at the classroom. It is possible

to conduct the lesson at a specialized classroom of “Physics”

or “Astronomy” subjects



It is possible to form the following teams: boys and girls, according

to the rows or any other principle.

The accelerated game, presented in the case-lesson, can be used as a task.

Tasks, presented after the scans, can also become the contest’s assignment.

In this case the major requirement is time and the Internet connection

to search for information.


The possibility to conduct the lesson with a student-understudy:



Possible homework:

Conduct a mini-study. Choose one of the mysteries and create a presentation

about it (approximately 5 slides). You can also look for information

about other mysteries of the Solar system:

  1.      Concept
  2.      When it has been discovered
  3.      By whom is it studied
  4.      Methods of research
  5.      Possible explanations

Discuss your presentations at the lesson.


The results of the case-lesson can be supplemented with the following students’ discoveries:



Three websites that helped find the most relevant information?





To help student and coach:






Where to find information for the case:









Solar system, Mercury, trans-Neptunian objects, Ceres, Jupiter,

Pluto, Mars, Iapetus, Miranda, electric sail, solar wind



Pautinka S. A.


Participated in upgrading of the case-lesson

Hrabovskaya L. L.

The End

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Цікаві факти

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