Study comets with these lesson plan activity suggestions, including directions for creating your own mini comet!
Comets have fascinated people for thousands of years. When studying comets, add some hand-on experience to the lessons. Students will more likely remember the facts and details regarding comets if they have an opportunity to create their own models.
After completing their study on comets, students should be able to describe the basic components of a comet, explain what happens as a comet orbits the sun, and discuss various comet facts and myths. Students should be aware of the universe, solar system, planets, stars, meteors, asteroids and comets. They will have a more complete understanding of comets if they know about elements and chemical compounds.
What is a Comet?
Students will need to understand what a comet is, what it’s made of, and where they are usually found in our solar system. They are described as frozen balls of ice, dust, gases, and rocks, orbiting the Sun in either the Kuiper belt around Neptune or at the edge of the solar system in the Oort Cloud. Using a display of the solar system, show students where the comets are most likely to be found.
Comets are usually named after their discovers. The most famous is Halley’s Comet, which returns every 76 years. Other comets highlighted in the news in recent years include Comet Hale-Bopp, Comet Shoemaker-Levy and Comet Hyakutake. Comets are often found by amateur astronomers who are scanning the visible night skies with their own personal telescopes or binoculars.
Students will need to know the definitions of many important words during their comet study. It can be fun to check understand of new vocabulary words using various word puzzles and games. Add to the list as necessary, but consider including the following words:
- Carbon Dioxide
- Solar System
- Solar Wind
Make a Comet
Create a comet using dry ice. Dry ice is solid CO2. Comets are made from water ice, dry ice, ammonia, dust, and rocks. They sublimate, which means going from a solid state to a gaseous state, as they travel through space, releasing their contents and creating a tail. A coma, made of dust and gases, is also formed around the nucleus of the comet due to sublimation.
Ingredients and items you will need include:
- Dry Ice
- Garbage bags
- Craft sticks
- Sand or dirt
- Corn syrup
- Mixing bowl
- Plastic wrap
Line a mixing bowl with plastic wrap. Add corn syrup, dirt and ammonia to the bowl and mix them. Assemble the three garbage bags so they are one inside the other inside the third. Place the dry ice within the innermost garbage bag. Make sure each bag is closed. Crush the dry ice with the hammer. Open the bags and pour the dry ice into the ingredients in the bowl. Stir vigorously until the mixture is almost frozen. Using the plastic wrap, lift the comet mixture from the bowl and shape it into a sphere or snowball. When it holds its shape, unwrap it from the plastic.
Draw or Paint a Comet
Provide art supplies to the students. For younger children, provide either construction paper and safety scissors and directions as to creating the shape of the comet and its basic parts, including the tail and the coma. Elementary students could also use finger paint or regular paint, but the results will likely be somewhat messier.
Older students will be able to draw with colored pencils, pastels, crayons, or markers and produce a fairly representative and artistic comet. Paint is also an option and can produce nice results.
- Have students draw the comet lightly with erasable pencil first to make sure they get the shape and proportions correct.
- Discuss all the parts of the comet prior to the actual drawing or painting. Brainstorm which colors would best represent each part of the comet.
- When the comet is finished, display it on a black background. Stars or glitter can be added if desired.
- Remind students they are creating an artistic representation of a comet.
- Show pictures of actual comets taken from space.
Additional Comet Activities
NASA has many interesting articles on comets, including the latest news and research.
Consider a field trip to a local planetarium, which often feature shows and an observatory.
Get the children’s book, Halley Came to Jackson by Mary Chapin Carpenter [Harper Collins, 1998] and read it to students.
Search the library and the Internet for more books on comets and additional activities that appeal to you and to your students. Comets by Sandra Bonar [Franklin Watts, 1998] is an example of a good resource on comets, which includes the superstitions and mythology surrounding the appearance of comets throughout history.
Students will remember all they have learned about comets and add the knowledge to their increasing educational repertoire of the universe. Don’t be surprised if they ask to learn more about astronomy after completing the lesson on comets.