The Shiniest Moon

This nonfiction article is written for use with upper-elementary students (grades 4-5). Students learn about two of Saturn’s moons, albedo, the relationship between heat absorption and temperature, and how decreasing sea ice in the Arctic actually contributes to further melting. The concepts and text structure of this article are challenging, and we recommend using the related activities (see below) to support student comprehension.

Modified versions are available for students in grades K-1 and grades 2-3, or any student needing a simplified version. Students in grades K-1 investigate the difference in heat absorption between light and dark colors. Students in grades 2-3 are introduced in a simplified manner to the light absorption and reflection of different surfaces on Earth. As always, consider the reading level and needs of your students when selecting a version for classroom use.

At each grade level, the article is available in three forms. Printable pdf files allow you to print this story in either text or a foldable book format. Your students can listen to the story while they read our electronic book version. Reading strategy templates and related activities provide tips for integrating this story with your science and literacy instruction.

Interested in other nonfiction articles for your students? Browse all twenty sets from the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears collection on our Stories for Students page!

The Shiniest Moon

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 5.8

Far off in our solar system is the beautiful planet Saturn. Along with its lovely rings, Saturn is also surrounded by over 50 moons. Two of these moons tell an interesting story that can teach us something about our own planet Earth.

Phoebe (FEE-bee) is the smaller and darker moon. Its dark, dusty surface (as dark as black ink) absorbs around 94 percent of the Sun’s light. But it still isn’t warm. Phoebe is so far from the Sun that its daytime temperature is a chilly -261 degrees Fahrenheit.

Enceladus (in-SELL-uh-dus) is larger and much brighter. This moon is covered with ice, so it reflects 99 percent of the Sun’s light back into space. Even though it is about the same distance from the Sun, it is much colder than Phoebe. The daytime temperature is around -330 degrees Fahrenheit!

Why the difference? You can find out yourself with a simple experiment. Make a small hole in a pair of tennis balls (get an adult to help with this), and insert a thermometer into each hole. Cover one tennis ball with white fabric, the other with black. Label the light ball “Enceladus” and the dark one “Phoebe” and place both “moons” under a warm lamp. Watch for a few minutes to see how the temperatures change.

You’ll probably find that “Phoebe” heated up much faster than “Enceladus.” White or shiny surfaces reflect more light than dark surfaces do, which means they don’t get as hot. Dark surfaces absorb more light, making the temperature rise.

Scientists have a word for how much or little light a surface reflects. They call it albedo. Shiny, ice-covered Enceladus reflects a lot of light. It has a very high albedo (around 99 percent). Dark, dust-covered Phoebe doesn’t reflect very much light. It has a very low albedo (around 6 percent).

What does this have to do with Earth? Just like Saturn’s moons, Earth also reflects light. However, Earth is covered by many different surfaces, like oceans, ice, forests, and fields. Each of these surfaces has a different albedo. On average, Earth’s albedo is around 30 percent. This number has changed during Earth’s history, though.

A Shiny Earth

During the ice ages, massive ice sheets covered much of Earth’s land. Earth’s albedo was much higher and so temperatures stayed low. Once it starts, this sort of effect can be hard to stop. First, temperatures go down. This causes ice to form, and that ice spreads across the land. The reflective ice bounces lots more sunlight back into space, and temperatures drop even more. More ice forms, more sunlight bounces into space, and on and on and on.

Today temperatures aren’t dropping. Instead, global warming is making temperatures rise. This means that ice is melting, especially in the Arctic. Arctic ice covers dark ocean water. As temperatures rise, the ice melts, and more water is exposed to the Sun. Dark ocean water absorbs sunlight much better than ice. This makes temperatures go up even further. More ice melts, more ocean water is exposed, and on and on.

If you were living on frozen Enceladus, you might welcome such a warming. But here on Earth, this runaway warming could cause big trouble. Polar bears and seals, not to mention the people who live in Arctic regions, depend on the sea ice for their existence. If the ice goes away, an ancient way of life goes away with it.

So what can we do? Global warming can seem overwhelming. Even adults (who should know better) spend more time arguing about the details than trying to solve the problem. One thing we know for sure is that human beings are putting too much of a gas called carbon dioxide into the air. We make carbon dioxide whenever we burn anything, but most of our carbon dioxide comes from burning coal, oil, and gasoline. And carbon dioxide makes temperatures rise.

There are simple things we all can do to slow global warming down at least a little. Take fewer trips. Buy smaller cars. Walk instead of riding; that helps, too. Turn off lights and electrical appliances, and use more efficient light bulbs when you can. That saves electricity, and cuts the carbon dioxide coming from power plants. So save some shiny ice, and some money on the electric bill. Turn out that extra light!


absorb – to take in

albedo – a measure of how much light a surface can reflect

reflect – to bounce back

Modified versions of this text are available for grades K-1 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 1.9) and grades 2-3 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 3.6). See below for links to all three versions in text, book, and electronic book forms.

Printable Files

Print the text-only version of this article for grades:
Print book versions of this article for grades:

Notes for assembling the books:

You can put this book together a couple of different ways. You can print out the pages, cut them in half and then order the pages back to front. Fold the stack in half and then staple the spine of the book. Pairs of pages can then be stapled or glued along the right edge.

You can also assemble the book as a foldable book.

To assemble the books this way, print the four pages and align the document pages so that the following book page numbers are in the lower right-hand corner: front page, page 6, page 2, and page 4. (The cover page should be on top and page 4 on the bottom.) Set your copier to copy single pages into double pages and run the four document pages in the order specified. Cut along the dotted line in the center of the double-sided page, place the book pages in order, fold, and staple along the spine.

Electronic Books

The Shiniest Moon

Grades K-1 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

Grades 2-3 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

Grades 4-5 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

In the Articulate version, click on the small arrow at the top of each page for the narration. The large arrow at the right will take you to the next page.

In the Flash version, the play button (in the top right hand corner) will play an audio file of the text on that page, while the pawprint (bottom right hand corner) will turn to the next page. Please note that the audio files take a moment to load on each page. Once the file has been loaded, a play button will appear in the top right hand corner of the page. To minimize the delay on each page, you can open the file and read through the article first. Once each page’s audio has loaded, it remains loaded until you close the browser window. By preparing the article ahead of time, you can have students start at the beginning of the book and read without delays. If you don’t have Flash, you can download it for free from the Adobe web site.

Literacy Set
This set includes three levels of e-books and foldable PDF booklets for grades K-1, 2-3, and 4-5, plus an article on the reading strategy of taking notes and a printable PDF student activity template.

Reading Strategy Templates

This article provides an opportunity for students in grades 2-5 to practice the strategy of note taking with content text. The following templates can be used in conjunction with “The Shiniest Moon” and “Getting Warmer.” For more information about this strategy, please see “Note Taking: Enhancing the Ability to Comprehend Nonfiction Text.”

Note It 3 Ways
This template aids students in taking notes from content text. Students record vocabulary terms, their meanings, and create a graphic representation for each.

Related Activities

These lessons and activities can help you integrate this article into your science and literacy instruction. The activity suggested in the story (creating models of Phoebe and Enceladus) will help students in grades 4 and 5 comprehend the difference in heat absorption. In the K-1 and 2-3 stories, students create pockets out of black and white construction paper, place thermometers inside, and place both pockets under a light source (a lamp or bright sunlight). This allows them to observe that dark colors absorb more light than light colors. Of course, please supervise students working with lamps or other light sources!

Light Absorption (Grades K-2 with modifications)
Students investigate how color affects absorption and temperature by creating pockets of black and white construction paper. While the plan is designed for students in grades 5-9, teachers can use the basic activity with a whole class in the primary grades.

For more lessons and activities to accompany this story, please refer to “Hands-on Science and Literacy Activities about Solar Energy.”

This article was written by Stephen Whitt. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site. The content of this page was updated in June 2020.

Copyright October 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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