Levitating Solar System

Planets float above the desk... featured on TV!

Merit prize at the Science Fair!

The Solar System Senior Technology project fascinated all who visited the Science Fair...

Built by Year 12 Physics students Kim Eichstaedt and John Gibbon

Old models of the Solar System

Traditional models of the Solar System use sticks or wires with planets attached to them with the Sun connected to them at the centre. Some use a bulb to simulate the light from the Sun and demonstrate Day/Night by the shadows it creates on the model planets. The more sophisticated models have a means of getting the planets on their connecting arms to move around the central lamp/Sun.

The levitating Solar System

We thought it would be more interesting if the planets had no visible connection to the central lamp/Sun and appeared to float in the emptiness, made to orbit the Sun by some invisible force. This would then get junior students thinking more along the lines of what "really" happens in the Universe. We might be able to demonstrate Day-side/Night-side of a planet, the axis of rotation and the concept of a "day" and the concept of a "year".

Our model was kept to a minimum diameter by the size limitations of the Science Fair regulations but the Year 12 Physics students intended a larger scale model for full effect and more planets orbiting at different speeds. There is even an suggestion of having moons orbiting the planets!


Year 12 Physics students from Inglewood High John and Kim with the stunning project that fascinated teachers and students from around Taranaki.



The secret behind the illusion.

A fan attached to a turntable silently supports the balloon (planet) in a column of air.

The Inglewood High students were awarded a Merit Prize in the Senior Technology section of the 2003 Fonterra Taranaki Science & Technology Fair.



The prototype model system worked brilliantly!

We were able to demonstrate

  1. Day-side/Night-side of a planet
  2. The axis of rotation and the concept of a "day"
  3. The period of orbit about the Sun and the concept of a "year".

Our model planet not only spun on its own axis but also orbited the model sun as the turntable rotated. At the Fair one "year" took about 5 "days".

Should the Sun be bigger than the planet?

Not neccessarily. A sun (star) could be very large OR very small, smaller than Earth for instance. You could argue that our model planet is a gas giant orbiting a Dwarf star. For an effect that may be more acceptable to your students, simply place a large round lamp shade over the bulb and use a smaller model planet!

Until we upload construction details try this yourself: Get a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer and get it to blow air straight up (vertically).

  • PREDICT: Ask your students "What will happen when I place this inflated balloon into the air stream?"
  • OBSERVE: Place the balloon into the air stream and let it go!
  • EXPLAIN: What is happening (seniors might like to consider forces at work)

Now lets add some more fun...

  • PREDICT: Ask your students "What will happen when I tilt this air stream over at a slight angle?"
  • OBSERVE: Rotate your wrist so the air stream is about 20 degrees from the vertical
  • EXPLAIN: What is happening (seniors might like to consider forces at work)

Finally, demonstrate that you can walk around like this, then far you can go from vertical before you lose control of the balloon. This is the basis for our model...figure out your own version as a class project!

Ask the experts for more information while visiting the New Plymouth observatory. The members of the Astronomical Society hold open nights every Tuesday night between

  • 8pm till 10pm in the Summer

  • 7:30pm till 9pm in the Winter


  1. The Sun Gun - shoot the closest star to Earth!
  2. Lunar Lander - use nothing but air to steer a spaceship to safety
  3. Discover the hidden information about the planets in our Interactive page
  4. Move the planets around on screen! organise the planets in the correct order in our Interactive page
  5. Try to find out what stars are made of and how they are different from each other.
  6. How do telescopes work?
  7. What is the difference between stars, planets, meteors, asteroids and comets?
  8. What is a Black Hole?

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