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Mapping the Galaxy

Type of Activity:

  • Lab Activity

Brief description of the activity and its strengths:

The students determine the shape of the Milky Way and our location in it based on observations of the distribution of galaxies, nebulae, open clusters, and globular clusters in the sky.



Type and level of course in which you would use this activity:

We've used this activity with 8th grade and high school science teachers; it can be challenging.  It is based upon a modified undergraduate lab--see 

 The activity can be used in undergraduate introductory courses, as well as for pre-service teachers.  

Skills and concepts that students should have mastered before beginning the activity:

Preliminary concepts include open clusters, globular clusters, and nebulae.  Students should be familiar with equitorial charts.  Spending time with models of the Milky Way (such as using "Where is M13?" first) may help.

How the activity is situated in its course

This is a stand-alone exercies within the workshop, after we've identified the different objects in the galaxy, and the differences between solar system, galaxy, and universe.
It can be placed within the context of history of astronomy--the Curtis Shapley debate.


The students determine the shape of the Milky Way and our location in it based on observations of the distribution of several different types of objects in the sky. The students
create maps which show the distribution of different types of celestial objects in the sky. On the student data sheet, there are tables with lists of constellations within which bright objects can be observed using a small telescope. There are 4 lists, one for each type of object: globular clusters, open cluster, gaseous nebulae and galaxies.


Invite the students to share (and to reflect upon each others' statements) their explanations for the distribution patterns of the celestial objects.  Ask students to then provide an analysis of what the data demonstrates about our galaxy and our location within it.

Supporting references and/or URLs

Original activity is at
This activity uses the equitorial chart, available at 

File Attachments

Mapping the Galaxy formatted.pdf   40 KB

Digital Object Identifier

Submitted By:

First Name:Christine
Last Name:Shupla
Institution:Lunar and Planetary Institute