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Program Wildest Weather in the Solar System


1. Build background about cyclones and anticyclones.
Ask: What are the characteristics of extreme weather on Earth, such as thunderstorms, blizzards, tornadoes, and hurricanes? Elicit from students that extreme weather on Earth occurs where there is low atmospheric pressure. Moisture (precipitation) and wind are also involved in weather events. Then display the diagram Cyclone and Anticyclone. Gesture by gathering your fingertips and thumb together, pointing them toward the ceiling, and spreading your fingertips and thumb outward as you move your hand upward. As you gesture, explain to students that most of the storms we experience are due to low-pressure systems and are classified as cyclones, where air is forced up through the center of the storm and directed toward the sky. Cyclones are associated with rain-making conditions. An anticyclone is the opposite. It is a high-pressure system where air is forced downward through the center of the storm toward the surface of the planet. Demonstrate this by holding your hand palm down toward the floor and slowly gathering your fingertips and thumb together and moving your hand toward the floor. Anticyclones do not usually produce precipitation. Ask: Why do you think that is? Explain to students that storms develop in the upper atmosphere and not at Earth's surface. Make sure students understand that winds in an anticyclone blow clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. This behavior is the opposite of a cyclone, or low-pressure system.

2. Have students generate curiosity questions and explore an interactive.
Project the image Jupiter Globe for students. Have students work together as a class to generate a list of curiosity questions. Prompt students to include questions about gases, storms, size, where the spot came from, when it appeared, and why it exists. Write the questions on the board. Then go to National Geographic's Jupiter interactive. Read through the slides together to find the answers to the following questions:

  • What is the atmosphere of Jupiter made up of? (gases hydrogen and helium)
  • How large is Jupiter’s Great Red Spot? (as large as three Earths)
  • Is Jupiter's Great Red Spot a cyclone or anticylone? How do you know? (an anticyclone; it rotates counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere)
  • How long does it take for the storm to make a full rotation? (approximately 6 days)
  • How long has the storm been going on? (at least 400 years)

3. Introduce the hands-on activity.
Tell students they will use everyday materials to create a model of the Great Red Spot storm on Jupiter. Divide students into pairs or groups of three. Have one student from each group gather the materials needed, including 400 milliliters (13.5 fluid ounces) of water and 10 milliliters (0.34 ounces) of cornstarch.

4. Have students create a model of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and analyze results.
Direct each group to pour water into the pie tin and then add the cornstarch and a few drops of food coloring. Ask students to stir until clumps are no longer apparent. Have students allow the cornstarch to settle at the bottom of the pie tin; then run the stirrer along the bottom of the pan. Explain that their stirrer represents the Great Red Spot. The cornstarch and water represent Jupiter's surface. Ask: What did you notice as you dragged the stirrer across the bottom of the pan? Students should notice hurricane-like eddies form on either side of the stirrer. Ask: How does that relate to how the Great Red Spot looks on Jupiter? Students should notice that it looks very similar. As the Great Red Spot moves across Jupiter, it creates smaller eddies. The action of dragging the stirrer across the bottom of the pie tin models the way the Great Red Spot moves across Jupiter.

5. Have students use ratios to calculate the size of the Great Red Spot.
Write the diameter of Jupiter on the board: 142,984 kilometers (88,846 miles). Project the image Jupiter Globe again. As a class, define the edges of the Great Red Spot. Have students use virtual tools, such as a virtual ruler, to measure the diameter of Jupiter and the diameter of the Great Red Spot and record those measurements. If virtual tools aren't available, provide students with meter sticks or rulers to make their measurements. Have students use ratios to determine the actual diameter of the Great Red Spot:

  • Actual diameter of Great Red Spot ÷ Actual diameter of Jupiter (142,984 kilometers) = student measured diameter of Great Red Spot ÷ student measured diameter of Jupiter

Students’ answers for the diameter of the Great Red Spot should be between approximately 18,000 and 24,000 kilometers (11,185 and 14,913 miles). Prompt students to compare the diameter of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot to the diameter of Earth: 12,756 kilometers (7,926 miles). Ask: What conclusions can you draw about the size of the Great Red Spot? Elicit from students that it is larger than our planet, so it is an enormous storm. Explain that scientists estimate that the Great Red Spot is as large as two or three Earths. There are also smaller storms caused by the movement of the Great Red Spot across the planet.

6. Have students create a diagram to scale.
Have students use the measurements they calculated in Step 5 to create a diagram that represents Jupiter and the Great Red Spot proportionally. Ask students to include the following labels: the planet, the storm, measurements, and units of measurement. Students should also include a key to identify the scale they used. Have students include a sketch of Earth using the same scale. Have students cut out their scale drawings and use the pieces to answer the following questions:

  • How many Earths fit across Jupiter?
  • How many Earths fit across the Great Red Spot?

Ask students to compare their sketches and discuss any differences they may observe. Differences may occur during the experiment in Step 4 due to how quickly they move the stirrer through the water/cornstarch mixture. Differences in calculations completed in Step 5 could occur with slight measurement differences. Slight measurement differences with large numbers involved will produce greater differences.

7. Check for understanding.
Make sure students have gained an understanding of the size of the storms on Jupiter in comparison to the size of Earth. That should help them when comparing the size of the storms on Earth (very small) compared to the enormous size of the storms on Jupiter. Also make sure students understand that all groups may not have obtained the same actual measurement due to slight differences in measurement. Ask: What could we have done to have all groups obtain more similar answers? (used a more precise measurement, used a smaller unit of measurement, or measured to hundredths or thousandths)

Informal Assessment

Check student calculations to make sure their answers are reasonably close. Check student diagrams to ensure scale and labels are included and correct.

Extending the Learning

Have students use the National Geographic Jupiter interactive feature to explore the planet's statistics, size in relation to other planets, and moons.


Subjects & Disciplines

  • Mathematics
    • Number sense
  • Science
    • Astronomy
    • Space sciences

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • use ratios to measure the Great Red Spot on Jupiter and make connections to Earth's size
  • create a diagram to scale

Teaching Approach

  • Learning-for-use

Teaching Methods

  • Discussions
  • Hands-on learning
  • Multimedia instruction

National Standards, Principles, and Practices

NCTM Principles and Standards for School Mathematics

Number & Operations (3-5) Standard 3
Compute fluently and make reasonable estimates
Number & Operations (6-8) Standard 1
Understand numbers, ways of representing numbers, relationships among numbers, and number systems

National Science Education Standards

(5-8) Standard A-1
Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
(K-4) Standard A-1
Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry


What You’ll Need

Materials You Provide

  • 8-inch or 9-inch pie tins
  • Cornstarch
  • Drawing paper
  • Food coloring
  • Glass pie plate
  • Meter sticks or rulers
  • Pencils
  • Pens
  • Scissors
  • Spoons or stirrers
  • Water

Background & Vocabulary

Background Information

Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and the fifth planet from the sun. It is a giant gas planet, made up mostly of hydrogen and helium. One of Jupiter's most noticeable features is the Great Red Spot, a giant, oval-shaped anticyclonic storm that has been raging for centuries and is believed to be the most powerful storm in our solar system. High-pressure winds in an anticyclone blow clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. An anticyclone is the opposite of a cyclone, or low-pressure system. Scientists have recently observed a new Red Spot, officially named Oval BA but nicknamed Red Jr., and are tracking its progress along Jupiter's surface.

Prior Knowledge

  • extreme weather on Earth


Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry



large weather system where air spins around a center of high pressure. Anticyclones spin clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.



layers of gases surrounding a planet or other celestial body.

Encyclopedic Entry: atmosphere

atmospheric pressure


force per unit area exerted by the mass of the atmosphere as gravity pulls it to Earth.

Encyclopedic Entry: atmospheric pressure



weather system that rotates around a center of low pressure and includes thunderstorms and rain. Usually, hurricanes refer to cyclones that form over the Atlantic Ocean.



width of a circle.

extreme weather


rare and severe events in the Earth's atmosphere, such as heat waves or powerful cyclones.



all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.

Encyclopedic Entry: precipitation


Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.


Anna Mika, M.S. Ed., NASA Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers (NEAT)


Christina Riska, National Geographic Society

Educator Reviewer

Dianne Koval Butler, Manager, Education Outreach & Partnerships, Lockheed Martin Corporate Communications
Jeanne Wallace-Weaver, Educational Consultant

Expert Reviewer

Buddy Nelson, Media Relations, Lockheed Martin Space Systems

National Geographic Program

Wildest Weather in the Solar System

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