CBC Digital Archives

Lesson Plan: For Teachers: The Physical Characteristics of Satellites

1 to 2 lessons
To understand the physical characteristics of satellites
Students will compare the speed and height of satellites to those of other objects which might impact on satellite deployment.

Lesson Plan

Before Exploring

Show students how to convert miles per second (m/s) to kilometres per hour (km/h). They may also need to know how to convert miles per hour (m/h) to kilometres per hour (km/h) (1 mile per hour = 1.6 kilometers per hour). Together, make a list of various objects and the speed at which they travel. These should include: sound, light, typical bullets, fast bullets, planes (subsonic and supersonic) and any other objects the students suggest.

Outline the Opportunity

Direct students to the topic Launching the Digital Age: Canadian Satellites on the CBC Digital Archives website.  Have them view the site briefly to identify the satellites mentioned. Then provide students with the speeds of those satellites (you can calculate these using orbital radii provided in the site), or have students calculate the speeds using the formula for speed in a circular orbit ( v = square root (4.0 x 1014/ radius of orbit; this produces an answer of speed in m/s if the radius of orbit is in metres).

Have students determine ratios (factors) of how much faster or slower each object on the original list is compared to each of the satellites.

Revisit and Reflect

Using the data they have gathered about speed of satellites, students can write to explain why it is important to know the location of all small particles in orbit in order to safely deploy a satellite. (The particles are moving at speeds which could damage the satellite if it comes in contact with it.)

Then have students use the heights of common objects (mountains, airplane flight paths) to complete a similar comparison between those heights and the distance from the surface of Earth at which the satellite orbits. Students should do this comparison using the size and mass of each satellite investigated.


Have students consider the statement "We are creating our own ring around the planet (like Saturn) composed of bits of metal, debris and some working satellites." Extend the discussion to focus on the problems of "space garbage."

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