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Comets: Small Bodies / Big Impacts
Classrooms


Woman and child building comet model.
Comet on a Stick

Comets are dramatic objects for students to study. They are very dynamic, even if clearly visible comets have been rare in the northern hemisphere in the past decade. Studying comets can help students understand what our solar system may have been like in its infancy.

Comets are even important in biology class. Some scientists think that comets brought a significant part of Earth's water during heavy bombardments billions of years ago. And comets may have brought organic compounds essential for life to Earth. Certainly, comets contain essential organic compounds.

You can connect this topic to a variety of others. There are great recipes for students to 'cook up' their own comets in the classroom, modeling comet anatomy and behavior.

If you haven't already taken a walk through a scale model of the solar system, now may be the time to do it -- and explore cometary orbits at the same time:

  • Comet Origins and Travels offers a way to integrate comets into the scale model.
  • Conduct the Explore the Celestial Neighborhood...in Your Neighborhood! activity and investigate the place of comets in our solar system. Model their orbits, which are more elliptical than the orbits of planets. Note the regions in our solar system where comets originate: near Jupiter and in the distant reaches past Pluto. See how comets have shaped the surfaces of planets through collisions by modeling impact craters.

As you engage your students on this topic, be sure to submit photographs, artwork, music, or words of students enjoying this activity to Share Your Stories.

Activities

Grades K-4
For younger students, comets can be incorporated into topics such as objects in the sky, the states of matter or social studies lessons on different societies' observations and beliefs about comets. Common misconceptions among students are that the comet tail always follows the nucleus, and that comets do not go around the Sun.

Activity Description
Comet Cratering Students will discover what happens when impactors hit the surface of a planet using balls of different sizes, flour and cocoa.
Exploring Comets and Modeling for Mission Success This is a complete unit containing many activities to understand comets and their structure. This resource has activities for all age levels. See National Science Education Standards Alignment for alignment of activities to grades and standards.
Teaching with Story and Song: (K-4) These stories and songs about comets introduce facts and are warm-ups to activities.


Grades 5-8
For intermediate students, comets can be incorporated into models and scientific processes, lessons on the solar system, geometry (ellipses), and kinetic and potential energy (in a comet's orbit about the Sun). Students may be confused about the scale of the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud and may also be confused by the term "ice." When scientists refer to the "ice" that makes up the nucleus of a comet, they are referring to frozen water, but also to "frozen" liquids and gases, such as frozen carbon dioxide and frozen ammonia. (Science Education Standards)

Activity Description
Unlocking the Mysteries: Science on the Edge of Our Solar System This is an engineering connection. It features the award-winning 23-minute Discovery Program overview video, which takes students along on the explorations being conducted by NASA's Discovery missions. It then allows students to become the scientists and engineers and design their own mission to investigate the cosmic unknowns.
Exploring Comets and Modeling for Mission Success This is a complete unit containing many activities to understand comets and their structure. This resource has activities for all age levels. See National Science Education Standards Alignment for alignment of activities to grades and standards.
Seeing in 3-D: Stereo Pairs
Educator Guide
Student Guide
Stereo Viewer: Parts 1 & 2
Students will have an understanding of how to use 2-D images to create 3-D images. Students will gain a better understanding of visible images retrieved from distant spacecrafts. Students will be able to use this technique to study images taken by the Deep Impact spacecraft of Comet Tempel 1 in 2005 and compare those pictures to new images that will be taken by the STARDUST spacecraft camera in 2011.
Comparing Comets
Educator Guide

Student Activity Sheet

Scientists Audio Track (2.3Mb, MP3)

Student Audio Track 1 (2.7Mb, MP3)

Student Audio Track 2 (2.8Mb, MP3)
This exercise allows students to compare and contrast the nucleus of two comets and listen to audio files of NASA scientists and middle-school students conducting the activity.
Comet on a Stick
Educator Guide
Student Guide
Students develop a model of a comet and use the same thought processes as a science and engineering team do to design and build missions. Students will use their model to test their theories about comets and then evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their comet model.
Cooking Up a Comet (new window) Students will learn the basic components of a comet and demonstrate how the comet's head and tail form by observing a comet model -- this activity is a classroom demonstration.
Comets: Very Eccentric Characters Students create a visual and kinesthetic model of the solar system. In addition, they learn a little basic geometry in demonstrating the difference between a circular planetary orbit and an elongated elliptical cometary orbit
Educator Guide

Extreme Navigation PPT

Role Cards

Standards

Slideshow
"Extreme Navigation" is designed for students in grades 5-8. In this activity, students take on the roles of a navigation team, spacecraft, comet, Earth, and sun to simulate how mission planners design a spacecraft/comet rendezvous.


Grades Grades 9-14
In high school, information about comets can be incorporated into the formation of the solar system, chemical composition of objects, energy transfer, the kinetic and potential energy in a comet's orbit, and the history of science. (Science Education Standards)

Activity Description
Exploring Comets and Modeling for Mission Success This is a complete unit containing many activities to understand comets and their structure. This resource has activities for all age levels. See National Science Education Standards Alignment for alignment of activities to grades and standards.
Comet Lingo Bingo (G9-12)
Educator Guide
Student Comet Chronicle
Comet Lingo Bingo Boards
Comet Lingo Bingo Clues/Card
These activities are designed to engage students in gathering a thorough and flexible knowledge of comet science, and to introduce the NASA missions of Discovery that are helping scientists and engineers expand that knowledge.
Comparing Comets
Slideshow
Scientists Audio Track (2.3Mb, MP3)

Student Audio Track 1 (2.7Mb, MP3)

Student Audio Track 2 (2.8Mb, MP3)
This exercise allows students to compare and contrast the nucleus of two comets and listen to audio files of NASA scientists and middle-school students conducting the activity. In the optional high school digital image analysis, students use the free ImageJ software to make comparative measurements.
Designing Craters: Creating a Deep Impact 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.
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Last Updated: 16 Apr 2014