the Physics Education Technology Project
This Java simulation allows users to build their own system of heavenly bodies and watch the gravitational ballet. With this orbit simulator, the user can set initial positions, velocities, and masses of 2, 3, or 4 bodies, and then see them orbit each other. It was designed to help learners understand how a planet's orbit is affected by its mass, velocity, and distance from its sun.
This resource is accompanied by a collection of labs and lessons for learners from middle school through undergraduate.
This is part of a larger collection of research-based simulations developed by the Physics Education Technology project (PhET). The activities promote interactive exploration of key concepts in physics, chemistry, biology, and earth science.
Please note that this resource requires
Java Applet Plug-in.
acceleration, gravitation, motion, orbit simulation, planet simulation, planetary system, planets, satellite, satellite simulation, solar system simulation, velocity
Metadata instance created
November 15, 2007
by Alea Smith
January 27, 2014
by Caroline Hall
Last Update when Cataloged:
November 15, 2010
AAAS Benchmark Alignments (2008 Version)
1. The Nature of Science
1A. The Scientific Worldview
9-12: 1A/H1. Science is based on the assumption that the universe is a vast single system in which the basic rules are everywhere the same and that the things and events in the universe occur in consistent patterns that are comprehensible through careful, systematic study.
4. The Physical Setting
4A. The Universe
9-12: 4A/H4. Mathematical models and computer simulations are used in studying evidence from many sources in order to form a scientific account of the universe.
6-8: 4F/M3a. An unbalanced force acting on an object changes its speed or direction of motion, or both.
6-8: 4F/M3b. If a force acts towards a single center, the object's path may curve into an orbit around the center.
9-12: 4F/H2. All motion is relative to whatever frame of reference is chosen, for there is no motionless frame from which to judge all motion.
9-12: 4F/H8. Any object maintains a constant speed and direction of motion unless an unbalanced outside force acts on it.
4G. Forces of Nature
6-8: 4G/M2. The sun's gravitational pull holds the earth and other planets in their orbits, just as the planets' gravitational pull keeps their moons in orbit around them.
9-12: 4G/H1. Gravitational force is an attraction between masses. The strength of the force is proportional to the masses and weakens rapidly with increasing distance between them.
11. Common Themes
6-8: 11B/M4. Simulations are often useful in modeling events and processes.
9-12: 11B/H1a. A mathematical model uses rules and relationships to describe and predict objects and events in the real world.
9-12: 11B/H2. Computers have greatly improved the power and use of mathematical models by performing computations that are very long, very complicated, or repetitive. Therefore, computers can reveal the consequences of applying complex rules or of changing the rules. The graphic capabilities of computers make them useful in the design and simulated testing of devices and structures and in the simulation of complicated processes.
Next Generation Science Standards
Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions (MS-PS2)
Students who demonstrate understanding can: (6-8)
Construct and present arguments using evidence to support the claim that gravitational interactions are attractive and depend on the masses of interacting objects. (MS-PS2-4)
Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions (HS-PS2)
Students who demonstrate understanding can: (9-12)
Use mathematical representations of Newton's Law of Gravitation and Coulomb's Law to describe and predict the gravitational and electrostatic forces between objects. (HS-PS2-4)
Disciplinary Core Ideas (K-12)
Forces and Motion (PS2.A)
The motion of an object is determined by the sum of the forces acting on it; if the total force on the object is not zero, its motion will change. The greater the mass of the object, the greater the force needed to achieve the same change in motion. For any given object, a larger force causes a larger change in motion. (6-8)
Types of Interactions (PS2.B)
Gravitational forces are always attractive. There is a gravitational force between any two masses, but it is very small except when one or both of the objects have large mass—e.g., Earth and the sun. (6-8)
Newton's law of universal gravitation and Coulomb's law provide the mathematical models to describe and predict the effects of gravitational and electrostatic forces between distant objects. (9-12)
Relationship Between Energy and Forces (PS3.C)
When two objects interact, each one exerts a force on the other that can cause energy to be transferred to or from the object. (6-8)
Crosscutting Concepts (K-12)
Cause and Effect (K-12)
Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural systems. (6-8)
Scale, Proportion, and Quantity (3-12)
Time, space, and energy phenomena can be observed at various scales using models to study systems that are too large or too small. (6-8)
Systems and System Models (K-12)
Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions. (6-8)
When investigating or describing a system, the boundaries and initial conditions of the system need to be defined. (9-12)
When investigating or describing a system, the boundaries and initial conditions of the system need to be defined and their inputs and outputs analyzed and described using models. (9-12)
NGSS Science and Engineering Practices (K-12)
Developing and Using Models (K-12)
Modeling in 6–8 builds on K–5 and progresses to developing, using and revising models to describe, test, and predict more abstract phenomena and design systems. (6-8)
Develop a model to predict and/or describe phenomena. (6-8)
Modeling in 9–12 builds on K–8 and progresses to using, synthesizing, and developing models to predict and show relationships among variables between systems and their components in the natural and designed worlds. (9-12)
Use a model to predict the relationships between systems or between components of a system. (9-12)
Use a model to provide mechanistic accounts of phenomena. (9-12)
This resource is part of 2 Physics Front Topical Units.
Topic: Kinematics: The Physics of Motion Unit Title: Planetary Motion
With this orbit simulator, you can set initial positions, velocities, and masses of 2, 3, or 4 bodies, and then watch them orbit each other. The simulation is especially effective at helping students understand how distance and mass are related to orbit. Scroll down on the page for related lesson plans developed by middle school and high school teachers.
Topic: Astronomy Unit Title: Astronomy Resources for the K-8 Classroom
Build your own system of heavenly bodies and watch the gravitational ballet! This orbit simulator lets users set initial position, velocity, and masses for up to 4 planets. It was designed to help students form deeper understanding of how a planet's orbit is affected by its mass, speed, and distance from its sun.
%0 Electronic Source %D November 15, 2010 %T PhET Simulation: My Solar System %I Physics Education Technology Project %V 2015 %N 6 July 2015 %8 November 15, 2010 %9 application/java %U http://phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/my-solar-system
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