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Lesson: Space Telescope Debate


(Lesson adapted from Discovery Education and Karen Kennedy, T.C. Williams High School, Alexandria, VA.). Level: Grades 6-8. Time Required: One to two class periods.

The Space Telescope Debate

In this lesson, students learn about the Hubble and the planned Webb telescopes, using Internet resources. After discussing the impact as well as the cost of large space telescopes, the class divides into two to debate whether or not funding on planetary research should continue.


Students will understand the following:

1. The Hubble Space Telescope lets us see farther into space than ever before.

2. The Hubble gives us images that are thousands of years old because light travels at a finite speed across vast distances of space.

3. Telescopes like the the new Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2014, could be used to search the universe for other Earthlike planets, but such exploration is expensive.

4. There are arguments for and against spending money to look for other Earthlike planets that might be thousands of light-years away.


Grade Level: 6-8, Subject Area: science

Standard: Understands the nature of scientific inquiry.

Grade Level: 9-12, Subject Area: science

Standard: Understands the nature of scientific knowledge.

Standard: Understands the nature of scientific inquiry.

Standard: Understands the major responsibilities of the national government for domestic and foreign policy, and understands how government is financed through taxation.

Grade Level: 9-12, Subject Area: space science

Standard: Understands essential ideas about the composition and structure of the universe and the Earth’s place in it.

Grade Level: 9-12, Subject Area: technology

Standard: Understands the nature and operation of systems.

Standard: Understands the relationships among science, technology, society, and the individual.


nebula – A cloud of gas or dust in interstellar space.

Context: Three thousand light years away from Earth we are seeing the Cat’s Eye Nebula as it was in 1000 B.C.E. This nebula formed after the dying star in the center shed its outer layer.

cosmology – A branch of astronomy that deals with the origin, structure, and space-time relationships of the universe.

Context: Hubble gave us an expanding universe and his observations really led to today’s modern cosmology— our explanation of the origin of the universe.

spectrograph — An instrument for dispersing radiation (as electromagnetic radiation or sound waves) into a spectrum and photographing or mapping the spectrum.

Context: The mission…to put two new instruments into the space telescope: an infrared camera and a new spectrograph. Using the spectrograph, astronomers will be able to analyze incoming light to determine the chemical makeup of the objects they observe.

phenomena — Observable facts or events.

Context: Hubble’s picture of the Crab Nebula really illustrates what the space telescope is all about. It’s giving us a new fresh look at phenomena throughout the universe.


For this lesson, you will need a computer with Internet access


Pre-debate Activities:

1. With the lights turned off, direct your students’ attention to an electric light in the classroom. Then turn the light on.

2. Ask students how long it took for the light to reach their eyes. Make sure they understand that light takes time to travel across space. Light travels so quickly that over short distances it appears to take no time at all; however, scientifically speaking, the light did take a miniscule fraction of a second to reach their eyes.

3. Have students conjecture about how long it takes the light from a star to reach our eyes. Explain that light from Proxima Centauri, the nearest star beyond the sun, takes more than four years to reach Earth. Therefore, when we view Proxima Centauri, we are really seeing that star as it appeared more than four years ago. (In other words, Proxima Centauri is more than four light-years away.) Tell students that the Hubble telescope can view objects in space that are thousands of light-years away.

4. Encourage students to use the Internet to view images from space captured by the Hubble Space Telescope (see Links). Remind them that the images show objects in space as they appeared — not in the present but in the distant past.

5. Introduce to your students the possibility of using the Hubble and newer, planned telescopes, such as the Webb, to search the universe for other Earthlike planets. After mentioning the considerable expense involved and the fact that any planets found are likely to be thousands of light-years away, lead the class in a discussion on the merits of such a search.

Debate Activity:

1. Divide the class into two fairly large groups to debate the issue you have raised and a smaller group to serve as a moderating panel. Assign each large group one side of the following resolution: Money should be spent to look for other Earthlike planets, even though they may be thousands of light-years away.

2. Allow time for the two debating groups to meet and come up with salient points to support the pro or con side of the resolution. If there is time, assign the project as homework, so that students have time to refine their arguments, and bring themselves up to date on current dates over investment into new space telescopes.

3. Hold a formal debate. Have the moderating panel keep notes on the debaters’ points and decide which side presented the stronger arguments. Consider inviting another class to witness the debate, or a science or technology teacher to serve on the moderating panel.

The Debate issue: Has the information gathered by the Hubble has been worth all of the time, money, and effort involved. Could we do without this information? Why might some people be opposed to spending government money in this way?


1. Encourage students to do research to find out how the Hubble Space Telescope “sees” and produces images from space. Have them write brief essays reporting their findings.

2. Discuss the idea that rocket and satellite technologies are the direct results of wars—World War II and the Cold War. Can such quick technological advances be made during times of peace or is competition essential to achievement? Can you think of any modern-day technologies that parallel rocket and satellite technologies?

3. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of having over 10,000 scientists and engineers contribute to the building of the Hubble space telescope. Does quality control become a problem when so many people are involved?

4. Discuss the idea that while Hubble has confirmed many astronomical theories it has also revised and even overturned others. For example, some results show that some of the stars in the universe are older than the universe itself is thought to be. Does it seem reasonable that scientists who are experts in their field could be so wrong in some of their theories?

5. Discuss the significance of the “funny stars” in the Orion Nebula. Is it scientifically worthwhile to watch this particular area over a long period of time, or should Hubble be pointed in different directions?

6. Discuss the Origins program that is designed to search out other Earth-like planets around other stars similar to our sun and look for traces of life. Why is a program like this valuable? Who might oppose such a program?


You can evaluate your students on their debating skills using the following three-point rubric:

Three points: arguments logical, well organized, and supported by facts

Two points: arguments logical, sufficiently well organized, but lacking factual support

One point: arguments lacking in logic and organization, lacking factual support


A Look at Celestial Time

Invite your students to pretend that another civilization is looking at Earth through a Hubble-type telescope from one thousand light-years away. Ask them to describe what Earth was like at the time the light they are seeing today was emitted. Challenge them to predict what Earth will be like when the light emitted from our planet today reaches the imaginary distant civilization one thousand years from now.

A Look at the Hubble and the Webb

Have students use the Internet (see Links) to research the development and history of the Hubble Space Telescope. Challenge them to find out and report on the problems encountered by the early developers of the Hubble and how the great space telescope was “rescued.” Extend this activity by having them also look at the Webb. What are its new possibilities?


Hubble Vision: Astronomy with the Hubble Space Telescope, Carolyn Collins Petersen and John C. Brandt. Cambridge University Press, 1995. This lavishly illustrated book traces the space telescope from its inception, including its problems, the people involved with it, and its eventual successes transmitting photos of the universe.

Origins: Our Place in Hubble’s Universe. John Gribbin and Simon Goodwin. Overlook Press, 1998. Dozens of detailed photographs taken by the Hubble space telescope, the Anglo-Australian telescope, and the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite are accompanied by clearly written text which tells how the big bang gave us galaxies, stars, planets, and people.


HubbleSite. The HubbleSite Website, provides access to a gallery of images, updates on dark energy and other discoveries, and information about the Hubble and the planned-for Webb telescope.

The Life of Edwin Hubble. Edwin Hubble was recognized by the astronomical community in 1983, thirty years after his death, when the Space Telescope was renamed in his honor. Along with his biography, this hypertext website describes his contributions to astronomy.

Amazing Space. Amazing Space is a set of web-based activities primarily designed for classroom use, but made available for all to enjoy. Be sure to check out their “Solar System Trading Cards” activity and the “Student Astronaut Challenge.”

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Website provides comprehensive information on this planned infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror. the launch of which is currently planned for 2014.

The Next Big Space Telescope is a 2-minute 2010 NOVA video on the Webb Space Telescope available for viewing on the NOVA Website. You can also view it here:

[youtube][/youtube],, Copyright 2001

Lesson Credit: Karen Kennedy, physics and chemistry teacher, T.C. Williams High School, Alexandria, Virginia.

Image Credit: Composite image of the supernova remnant W49B. Image Credit: NASA/CXC/SSC/J. Keohane et al.; Infrared: Caltech/Palomar/J.Keohane et al.

One Response to “Lesson: Space Telescope Debate”

  1. […] For older students, teachers may also wish to extend this lesson with another that prompts students to debate the value of such powerful, yet costly space telescopes. See: The Space Telescope Debate. […]

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