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Designing Craters
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Education - Designing Craters

Designing Craters: Creating a Deep Impact is available in electronic format through NASA Spacelink - one of NASA's electronic resources specifically developed for the educational community. This publication and other educational products may be accessed at the following address: This publication is in the public domain and is not protected by copyright. Permission is not required for duplication.

Designing Craters: Creating a Deep Impact is a two-to-three week student inquiry into the question: "How do you make a 7-15 stories deep, football stadium-sized crater in a comet?" The lessons are designed to provide students with experience in conducting scientific inquiries, gain a greater understanding of scientific modeling, and get the students involved with the excitement of a NASA mission in development.

The activities are designed to model one path that a scientific inquiry might take. The students will begin by brainstorming what factors might influence crater size and doing some initial experimentation and exploration. They will evaluate their suggestions and describe their initial ideas about cratering phenomena. Next, they will design their own experiments to test one of the possible factors. Emphasis will be placed on experiment design, limiting the test to one variable, and quantifying the experiment. After analyzing the data for patterns that might be used to predict crater size from initial variables, the students will test those predictions, use the results to refine their methods of prediction, and try again. The students will discuss the advantages and limits of scientific modeling as they compare their own low energy simulations, the work of Deep Impact Science Team cratering experts, and cratering on a Solar System scale. Finally, the students will use current information about comets and the patterns they derived from their own investigations to give their best answer to the initial question. These answers will be submitted to the Deep Impact Education and Outreach Team.

What's different about this module?
Cratering is a favorite topic for space science teaching. Many interesting activities have been developed for other NASA missions and other curricula. So why do another cratering module? The Deep Impact team believes that the most important thing that a NASA mission has to offer the classroom is a look into the process of scientific inquiry in action. This module is designed to give students and teachers a structure for investigating one of the questions facing Deep Impact's mission design team: "How do you make a crater on a comet?" This module is designed to use some aspects of the familiar "drop the ball bearing in the flour" cratering activities as a launching pad for an exploration of the nature of ongoing science investigations and the development of students' inquiry skills. This module also takes these explorations a step further by doing some mathematical modeling with the results and discussing the limitations of low energy classroom impacts as models of high energy Solar System impacts.

Why this approach?
The National Science Standards place a high value on inquiry in the science classroom. The first content standard for all K-12 levels is, "All students should develop abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry and understandings about scientific inquiry." The first science teaching standard begins, "Teachers of science plan an inquiry-based science program for their students." Inquiry is often discussed in teacher preparation programs as one of the preferred methods of instruction. Yet, inquiry does not exist in equal prevalence in the classroom. Most science teachers can list reasons for the discrepancy immediately. Inquiry takes more classroom time. Inquiry is difficult to assess. Inquiry creates a heavy planning burden. It is difficult to operate in an inquiry mode and have a classroom that "looks like" what teachers and administrators often expect a classroom to "look like." This unit has been designed as one example of what inquiry in the classroom might look like.

Cratering is a phenomenon about which students have a lot of ideas. Most have experience with throwing things against each other and the results of those collisions. This module allows students to explore their own ideas about how cratering might work. They design experiments and look for patterns in the data, not just to try to match a set outcome from the textbook, but to try to reconcile their understanding of what they think will happen with what they see. The students explore and refine their own ideas, rather than "discover" the "correct" answers. It is important to note that the designers of this curriculum believe that the primary goal of this module is to teach students methods of science inquiry, rather than develop a full modern understanding of cratering.

Thinking about Cratering Think
This section is the students' introduction to the Deep Impact mission and the project on which they are embarking. This will provide a connection between the real mission scientists and the students in the classroom. The activity also includes some initial, free-form investigation of factors involved in determining crater size.
Letter from Deep Impact Team
Exploring Cratering
Comet Research
The Importance of Cratering in the Solar System (Optional)

What Factors Influence Crater Size? Design, Evaluate, & Present
Having done some initial exploration into cratering in the previous lesson, students now focus their ideas about the factors influencing crater diameter and depth. Students design experiments to test specific factors, evaluate each other's experimental designs, conduct the experiment, and present their data to the rest of the class.
Guidelines for Good Experiments
Peer Review
Graphing Your Data
Poster Presentation of Experiment and Results
Poster Presentation Guidelines
Class Results: Factors that Influence Cratering  

Predicting Crater Size Predict
In "Predicting Crater Size," students will be looking for patterns in their experimental results, using those patterns to make predictions, and testing those predictions by revisiting the initial cratering experiments.
Looking for Patterns and Making Predictions
Teacher Overhead Transparencies

Cratering in the Classroom, the Lab, and the Solar System Compare
In this activity, students will be looking at the similarities and differences between their classroom experiments, professional lab cratering experiments, and cratering on a Solar System scale. The students will be asked to think about the limitations and advantages of small-scale simulations as a form of scientific modeling.
Cratering in the Solar System
Thinking about Scientific Modeling

Cratering on the Comet Model & Report
In this activity, the students will use their model to make their best suggestions for creating a seven-story deep football stadium on Comet Tempel 1. They will complete a two-part report to the Deep Impact team.
Report to the Deep Impact Team
Scoring Suggestions: Reporting to the Deep Impact Team

Appendices Support Materials
The appendices contain a wealth of information for use by both teachers and students. Appendix A contains images of cratering on bodies throughout our Solar System and is referred to throughout the unit. Appendix B contains background science intended for the teacher. Appendix C shows how scientific modeling of cratering has been done at the Ames Vertical Gun Range. Appendix D includes student journal assignments or prompts used throughout the module, and appendix E contains information about how to communicate with the Deep Impact team.

This module was made possible by the efforts of a team of educators, scientists, and students. Thank you to the teachers and students who gave their time and energy to initial pilot tests of this material: Stacy Satkofsky and the students of Lackey High School; Daniel Levin and the students of Walter Johnson High School; Tom Stickles and the students of Northwestern High School. Without your time, effort, patience, ideas, and reports, this module could not have been completed. Dr. H. J. Melosh and Dr. Peter Schultz of the Deep Impact Science Team have my gratitude for invaluable contributions to the content and editing suggestions. Thank you to Dr. David Hammer, my advisor in the College of Education, for input at all stages of development and many hours of discussion both in class and out about inquiry, teaching, and education in general. Finally, I would like to extend my gratitude and thanks to Dr. Lucy McFadden, Deep Impact's Education and Public Outreach Manager, for providing me with support and allowing me opportunity and the freedom to develop this module.

Thank you!

Gretchen Walker, University of Maryland

June 19, 2001

Curriculum Connections

National Science Education Standards

Content Standards for Grades 5-8

Science as Inquiry

  • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence.
  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
  • Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations.
  • Design and conduct a scientific investigation.
  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.
  • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.
  • Use mathematics in all aspects of scientific inquiry.

Understandings about scientific inquiry

  • Technology used to gather data enhances accuracy and allows scientists to analyze and quantify results of investigations.
  • Scientific investigations sometimes result in new ideas and phenomena for study.

Physical Science

  • Properties and changes of properties in matter
  • A substance has characteristic properties, such as density, a boiling point, and solubility, all of which are independent of the amount of the sample.

Motion and Forces

  • The motion of an object can be described by its position, direction of motion, and speed. That motion can be measured and represented on a graph.

Transfer of energy

  • Energy is a property of many substances and is associated with heat, light, electricity, mechanical motion, sound, nuclei, and the nature of a chemical.
  • Energy is transferred in many ways.


Earth and Space Science
Earth's History

  • ...Earth history is also influenced by occasional catastrophes, such as the impact of an asteroid or comet.

Earth in the Solar System

  • The Earth is the third planet from the Sun in a system that includes the Moon, the Sun, eight other planets and their moons, and smaller objects, such as asteroids and comets.

Content Standards for Grades 9-12

Science as Inquiry

  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
  • Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations.
  • Design and conduct a scientific investigation.
  • Formulate and revise scientific explanations and models using logic and evidence.
  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and models.
  • Communicate and defend a scientific argument.

Understandings about scientific inquiry

  • Scientists usually inquire about how physical, living, or designed systems function.
  • Scientists rely on technology to enhance the gathering and manipulation of data.
  • Results of scientific inquiry-new knowledge and methods-emerge from different types of investigations and public communication among scientists.

Curriculum Connections
National Council for Teachers of Mathematics
Standards for Grades 6-8

Data Analysis and Probability

  • Develop and evaluate inferences and predictions that are based on data
  • Make conjectures about possible relationships between two characteristics of a sample on the basis of scatterplots of the data and approximate lines of fit.
  • Use conjectures to formulate new questions and plan new studies to answer them.


  • Understand patterns, relations, and functions
  • Represent, analyze, and generalize a variety of patterns with tables, graphs, words, and, when possible, symbolic rules.

Analyze change in various contexts

  • Use graphs to analyze the nature of changes in quantities in linear relationships.

Use mathematical models to represent and understand quantitative relationships

  • Model and solve contextualized problems using various representations, such as graphs, tables, and equations.


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Last Updated: 28 Jun 2010