Heat, Temperature and Energy: MESSENGER -- Cooling With Sunshades
A graphic showing the satellite MESSENGER in front of planet Mercury

Featured Lesson(s)

MESSENGER: Cooling With Sunshades Guide [PDF 783 KB]




Essential Question

How can passive cooling methods keep an object at a comfortable temperature?



On March 18, 2011, MESSENGER became the first spacecraft to enter into orbit about Mercury, embarking on a year-long mission to study in depth the planet closest to the sun. The Cooling With Sunshades featured lesson uses design features built into the MESSENGER spacecraft to investigate some basic concepts associated with light, heat and energy. Cooling With Sunshades shows how spacecraft such as MESSENGER can be used to study planets without being damaged by the harsh high-radiation environment of space.

This lesson has three student activities. In the course of completing this lesson, students discuss some of the basic properties of temperature and heat, and learn different ways heat can affect substances. They construct a simple device based on the phase change of water from ice to liquid and investigate the effectiveness of different shading materials, as well as the cost-effectiveness of different shade designs. They also learn how the MESSENGER spacecraft uses a sunshade to keep scientific instruments comfortable and functional at Mercury's distance from the sun.

Additional Resources

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  Connection to NASA:

  Extension Activities:

Lessons from the Staying Cool education unit:

Professional Development

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Lesson Information

Subject(s) Covered:

 • Physics • Geometry

Topic(s) Covered:

 • Physics -- Temperature, latent heat, state of matter, transfer of energy • Geometry -- Angles, surface area

Activity Type:


Grade Level:


Instructional Objective:

 Students will: • Explain how heat relates to the motion of atoms and molecules of a substance. • Describe how heat can be transmitted from one place to another. • Explain how sunlight arriving on Earth interacts with matter.

Time to Complete the Activity:

 Two to three 45 minute classes

  Materials Needed:

Per group of three:

  • Two coffee cans (11.5 oz)
  • Bucket for ice water
  • Ice cubes to fill the bucket
  • Water to fill the bucket
  • Thermometer
  • Shielding materials (each group supplies their own)
  • Stopwatch
  • Meter stick
  • Optional strainer, tape, ruler, calculator, protractor

Per Class:

  • Scale capable of measuring at least 500 grams

   National Content Standards:



  • 21st Century Outcome 1: Learning and Innovation Skills
  • 21st Century Element: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • 21st Century Skills
    • Reason effectively
    • Solve problems
  • Science Standards
  • Science as inquiry
    • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
    • Understanding about scientific inquiry
  • Physical science
    • Structure and properties of matter
  • Math Standards
  • Problem Solving
    • Apply and adapt a variety of appropriate strategies to solve problems
  •  Measurement
    • Apply appropriate techniques, tools and formulas to determine measurements
    • Understand measurable attributes of objects and the units, systems and processes of measurement
  • Communication
    • Communicate their mathematical thinking coherently and clearly to peers, teachers and others
  • Connections
    • Recognize and apply mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics