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23.4: Lesson 23.3: Recent Space Exploration

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12

Key Concepts

  • Space stations
  • Space shuttles
  • Recent space missions

Lesson Objectives

  • Outline the history of space stations and space shuttles.
  • Describe recent developments in space exploration.

Lesson Vocabulary

  • orbiter: main part of the space shuttle that has wings like an airplane
  • space shuttle: reusable spacecraft capable of carrying large pieces of equipment or parts of a space station
  • space station: large spacecraft that orbits Earth and on which humans can live for extended periods of time

Teaching Strategies

Introducing the Lesson

Pique students’ interest in current space explorations by impressing them with the following facts about the Cassini spacecraft that is exploring Saturn and its moons.

  • The Cassini spacecraft has traveled all the way to Saturn, a distance of about 1.5 billion kilometers.
  • To travel that far requires a very large spacecraft in order to hold all of the fuel needed, and the Cassini spacecraft is the biggest interplanetary spacecraft ever built.
  • The Cassini is about the same size as a 30-passenger school bus and weighs a whopping 5650 kg (6 tons)!
  • The Cassini’s elaborate electrical system has more than 12 km (almost 7.5 miles) of cables.

Tell students they will learn more about the Cassini spacecraft and its mission, as well as about other recent or current space missions, when they read this lesson.


Show the class the NASA animated video at the following URL. From the video, students can learn how the space shuttle was developed, how it blasts off, and how it lands. Be sure to tell students that the space shuttle was retired in 2011 and a new spacecraft to replace it is in the works.

Shuttle http://www.kidsknowit.com/interactive-educational-movies/free-online-movies.php?movie=Space Shuttle


In the interactive module at the URL below, students can simulate how astronauts have serviced the Hubble Space Telescope (or have done other repair work in space). The module includes activities (such as simulating working in space by wearing thick gloves and trying to manipulate objects behind a screen) and online interactions. Make sure students are aware that no future repair flights will be made to the Hubble, but it is expected to continue to operate until at least 2014 and possibly all the way until 2020. Another space telescope to replace the Hubble is expected to be launched in 2018.


Differentiated Instruction

Suggest that students create a concept map for space shuttles and space stations based on the content of the lesson. This will help less proficient readers and English language learners hone in on the most important ideas about these two types of spacecraft.


Ask creative students to watch videos and read articles about living and working on the International Space Station (ISS). Then have the students use the information to write a realistic short story about, or diary of, a fictional astronaut aboard the ISS.

Science Inquiry

The Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP) is a nationally recognized award-winning, inquiry-based, student-centered education project. Your students can get involved through distance learning or as an independent research project. There is no fee. Students will learn how science works by engaging in authentic scientific research using data from a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars. To learn more, go to this URL:


Common Misconceptions

A common misconception is that a space shuttle could have been used to fly to the moon. At the following URL you can find a math-based argument to demonstrate to students why this would have been impossible. The thrust of the argument is that too much fuel would be required to travel that far for the shuttle to carry.


Reinforce and Review

Lesson Worksheets

Copy and distribute the lesson worksheets in the CK-12 Earth Science for Middle School Workbook. Ask students to complete the worksheets alone or in pairs to reinforce lesson content.

Lesson Review Questions

Have students answer the Review Questions listed at the end of the lesson in the FlexBook® student edition.

Lesson Quiz

Check students’ mastery of the lesson with Lesson 23.3 Quiz in CK-12 Earth Science for Middle School Quizzes and Tests.

Points to Consider

To date, a total of 22 people have died on space missions. In the two space shuttle disasters alone, 14 people died. However, space exploration and research have led to many great discoveries and new technologies. Do you think sending people into space is worth the risk? Why or why not?

In the past several years, private companies have been developing vehicles and launch systems that can take people into space. What applications can you think of for such vehicles? What advantages and disadvantages are there to private companies building and launching spacecraft?

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