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Space Rocks
Grades: 5th and 8 th
Program Duration: 30 Minutes
Program Type: Interactive Dome Show
Program Description
The students will discern the differences in the planets and other space rocks housed in our solar system and universe.
Louisiana GLEs and NGSS:
Grade 5
39. Identify the physical characteristics of the Sun (ESS-M-C1)
40. Describe the significance of Polaris as the North Star (ESS-M-C1)
41. Explain why the Moon, Sun, and stars appear to move from east to west across the sky (ESS-M-C1)
42. Differentiate among moons, asteroids, comets, meteoroids, meteors, and meteorites (ESS-M-C2)
43. Describe the characteristics of the inner and outer planets (ESS-M-C2)
44. Explain rotation and revolution by using models or illustrations (ESS-M-C4)
45. Identify Earth’s position in the solar system (ESS-M-C5)
Space Systems: Stars and the Solar System
5-PS2-1. Support an argument that the gravitational force exerted by earth on objects is directed down.
5-ESS1-1. Support an argument that the apparent brightness of the sun and stars is due to their relative distances from
Grade 8
39. Relate Newton’s laws of gravity to the motions of celestial bodies and objects on Earth (ESS-M-C3)
42. Interpret a scale model of the solar system (ESS-M-C5)
Middle School
Space Systems
MS-ESS1-2. (Develop and) use a model to describe the role of gravity in the motions within galaxies and the solar system.
MS-ESS1-3. Analyze and interpret data to determine scale properties of objects in the solar system.
Key Terms:
Asteroid: One of billions of rocky objects, less than 1000 km in diameter, which orbit the Sun. Also known as minor
planets. Thought to be planetesimals leftover from the formation of the planets. The first asteroid (Ceres) was
discovered by Giuseppe Piazzi in 1801. More than 10 000 asteroids have so far been discovered and given permanent
identification numbers. The largest asteroid is 2001 KX76 with a diameter of at least 1200 km
Asteroid Belt: Region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter which is populated by billions of asteroids.
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Comet: Icy body which orbits the Sun. Thought to be leftover planetesimals from the formation of planets in the outer
Solar System. The small, solid nucleus consists of water and other ices coated with dark organic compounds. As the
nucleus approaches the Sun, it vaporizes, creating a coma and two main tails. These tails - one made of gas and one of
dust - may stream millions of kilometers into space, and almost always point away from the Sun. Some `dead' comets,
which no longer display a coma or tails, resemble asteroids.
Gravity: The attraction between all objects
Keller’s Laws: They are: The orbit of every planet is an ellipse with the Sun at one of the two foci; A line joining a
planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time; The square of the orbital period of a planet is
directly proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.
Keiper Belt: Spherical region of the outer Solar System populated by numerous `ice dwarfs', otherwise known as
Kuiper Belt Objects or trans-Neptunian objects. Several hundred of these have so far been discovered. The planet
Pluto appears to be the largest of these objects. The belt seems to occur at 30 - 150 AU from the Sun and is believed to
be the source of short-period comets. Named after Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper who predicted its
existence. Also known as the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt, in recognition of the work of another (Irish) scientist, Kenneth
Meteor: Brief streak of light seen in the night sky when a speck of dust burns up as it enters the upper atmosphere.
Also known as a shooting star or falling star.
Meteorite: A fragment of rock that survives its fall to Earth from space. Usually named after the place where it fell.
Meteoroid: A piece of rock or dust in space with the potential to enter Earth's atmosphere and become a meteor or
Moon: 1) The Earth's satellite, which orbits at a distance of 384 500 km. Its mass is one-eightieth (1/80) and its gravity
one-sixth (1/6) of the Earth's. Surface temperatures range from 80-400 K. It has no atmosphere. 2) General name also
given to natural satellites, e.g., the moon of Jupiter and Saturn.
Planet: Large, spherical, rocky or icy body which orbits the Sun or another star
Pluto: A dwarf planet also called a Plutoid. Pluto is much smaller than the Moon. Its highly eccentric orbit, with an
average radius of 39.4 AU, sometimes takes it within the orbit of Neptune. Pluto has a very thin atmosphere consisting
mainly of methane and nitrogen. The average surface temperature is 50 K.
Proper motion: The motion of the position of the star in the sky (the change in direction in which we see it, as opposed
to the radial velocity) after eliminating the improper motions of the stars, which affect their measured coordinates but are
not real motions of the stars themselves.
Retrograde: The motion of a planet or other Solar System body in a clockwise direction. Most Solar System bodies
orbit or rotate about their axes in an anti-clockwise direction when looked at from the north pole of the body or the
Satellite: 1) A small, natural celestial body (such as our Moon) revolving around a larger one. 2) A man-made object
(such as a spacecraft) placed in orbit around the Earth, another planet or the Sun.
Connections to Permanent Exhibits:
These exhibits are located in the Earth’s Solar System cluster of The Space Center, 2nd floor.
The Sun: Read about the sun and ancient cultures.
Interactive Sun: Check out this computer program. What are three characteristics of the sun? Take the Sun Fact
Abby and Joe Averett Solar Observatory: What are two types of solar telescopes that we have in our rooftop
solar observatory? Can you see any sunspots today?
Mercury: What spacecraft is on its way to Mercury right now? Name an interesting Mercurian fact.
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Venus: Describe Venus’ rotation (spin) as it relates to its revolution (orbit). What did the Magellan spacecraft do?
Earth: What phase of the moon can you see in the sky today? Why did the Apollo astronauts have to have a
horizontal support for the American flag when they planted it on the moon? (Hint: See the photomontage outside
the second floor space bathrooms.)
Mars: What is the largest mountain in the solar system? How many moons does Mars have?
Jupiter: Can you see Jupiter in the sky tonight? Name an interesting fact about a Jovian moon.
Saturn: What spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004? What did it do?
Uranus: How old are you on Uranus? Describe the atmosphere of Uranus.
Neptune: What makes Neptune blue? The Earth’s axis tilts at 23.5 degrees. What is the Neptune’s axial tilt?
Plutoids: Name 3 characteristics that define a classical planet? Name 2 planet-like objects and where are they
found in our solar system? Are they plutoids or dwarf planets?
Web Resources:
Space Lithographs
Lithographs of asteroids, meteors, meteorites, and comets are downloadable at this site.
Comet Tales
SEGWay and The Center for Science
This website has information about the history of comets, their origin, their characteristics along with a Comet Gallery
of pictures. There is also a section for comet games and information about killer comets.
Solar System Exploration
Great website with information on all the planets, moons, and asteroids. There is up-to-date information on all space
missions present and future. You will also find a kids page where students can do puzzles of space images and make
models of spacecraft.
Welcome to the Planets
Jet Propulsion Lab
This website give an overview of each of the planets, some of the major missions to the planets, a glossary, and images
of the planets.
Pre-Visit Activities
Planet Paths: Studying Planetary Orbit Paths
This is a multi-activity lesson to introduce students to planetary motion. Having your students do some of these
activities will enhance the educational experience as you students participate in the “Space Rocks” Space Dome
Interactive Program. Activities 1 and 2 are appropriate for 5th grade and activities 1 – 4 are appropriate for 8th grade.
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The set of lessons may be found at the following website sponsored by NASA-MSU Bozeman Ceres Project:
Post-Visit Activities
Edible Space Rocks
This is a great lesson to introduce students to some space geology and geologic field notes.
You will find this teacher lesson plan at the following website;
The student pages are found at the following website:
Lesson about Comets
This is a lesson to be used with the Comet Interactive found on Amazing Space at the following website:
Nature and Composition of a Comet Lesson
The purpose of this lesson is for students to explore the nature and composition of a comet. The student will
select ingredients to create a comet. They will learn to identify ingredients responsible for a comet nucleus, and
how changes in the nucleus when the comet approaches the Sun causes two different kinds of tails to form.
Students can explore some facts, myths, and legends linked to the appearance of comets throughout history.
Desired Learning Outcomes:
Identify the parts that make up a comet.
Describe what happens to a comet as it travels closer to the Sun.
Identify the different types of comet tails.
Read about facts, legends and myths related to comets.
Before attempting to complete this lesson, the student should:
Understand that the Solar System consists of planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and the Sun.
Recognize that there are chemical elements and compounds.
New Vocabulary:
Ammonia (NH3)—
A chemical compound consisting of four atoms: one of nitrogen and three of hydrogen. At
standard temperature and pressure on Earth, ammonia is a gas. In the cold vacuum of space, it is a solid; when hit
by sunlight, it becomes a gas. Ammonia has been observed in comet comas.
Noncrystalline carbon (C)— A solid state of carbon in which the atoms are arranged at random, having no
crystal or layer structure. On Earth, charcoal is a type of noncrystalline carbon. Very small particles similar to
noncrystalline carbon atoms have been observed in comet comas and tails.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)— A chemical compound consisting of three atoms: one of carbon and two of oxygen.
At standard temperature and pressure on Earth, carbon dioxide is a gas. In the cold vacuum of space it is a solid;
when hit by sunlight, it becomes a gas. Carbon dioxide has been observed in comet comas and tails.
Coma —
The cloud that forms around a comet's nucleus. This cloud is made by solar wind striking the surface of
the nucleus, causing a mixture of gas and dust to form around it.
Diamond (C)—
A state of carbon in which the atoms are arranged in crystals. Diamond is a solid on Earth and
in space. It is believed to be a part of a comet's nucleus. Microscopic amounts of this substance have been found in
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small meteorites that have landed on Earth —some of which may have come from comets.
Dust Tail—
This type of comet tail forms when the solar wind separates dust from the coma, pushing it outward
away from the Sun in a slightly curved path.
Formaldehyde (HCHO)—
A chemical compound consisting of four atoms: two of hydrogen, one of carbon,
and one of oxygen. At standard temperature and pressure on Earth, formaldehyde is a liquid. In the cold vacuum
of space, it is a solid; when hit by sunlight, it becomes a gas. Formaldehyde has been observed in comet comas.
Gas-Ion Tail—
This type of comet tail forms when the solar wind separates gases from the coma, pushing them
outward away from the Sun in a straight path.
Graphite (C)—
A state of carbon in which the atoms are arranged in layers, graphite is a solid on Earth and in
space. Very small particles similar to graphite, like carbon atoms, have been observed in comet comas and tails.
Methane (CH4)—
A chemical compound consisting of five atoms: one of carbon and four of hydrogen. At
standard temperature and pressure on Earth, methane is a gas. In the cold vacuum of space, methane is a solid;
when hit by sunlight, it becomes a gas. Methane has been observed in comet comas.
Nucleus of a Comet—
The solid rocky part of a comet.
Sodium (Na)—
A chemical element whose atoms are arranged in crystals. Sodium is a solid on Earth. In the
cold vacuum of space, it is also a solid, probably in the form of a chemical compound. When hit by sunlight,
sodium becomes a gas. Sodium has been observed in comet tails.
Silicon Dioxide (SiO2)—
A chemical compound consisting of three atoms: one of silicon and two of oxygen.
Silicone dioxide is a solid on Earth and in space. It is found in rocks, and is the primary ingredient of sand on
Earth. In space, it is very often found as dust. Silicon dioxide has been observed in comet comas and tails.
Solar Wind—
A stream of charged particles ejected from the surface of a star.
Water (H2O)—
A chemical compound consisting of three atoms: two of hydrogen and one of oxygen. In the
cold vacuum of space, water is a solid; when hit by sunlight, it becomes a gas. Water, which is a comet's most
abundant compound, has been observed in comet comas.
The flash of light that we see in the night sky caused by the friction of a meteoroid passing through the
Meteoroid— An interplanetary chunk of matter that is smaller than a kilometer in diameter and most frequently
measured in millimeters.
Any part of a meteoroid that that survives its fall through the atmosphere and lands on the Earth.
A small solar system object composed mostly of rock. Many of these objects orbit the sun between
Mars and Jupiter. Their size can range anywhere from 10 meters in diameter to less than 1000 kilometers.
A small solar system object consisting of ice and other compounds that form a coma and sometimes a
visible tail whenever they orbit close to the Sun.
General Misconceptions:
Students may not realize that comets are a part of the Solar System. They may think that all comets look the same
and are not that much different than other small interplanetary objects such as asteroids and meteoroids.
Preparation Time:
Provide time to download computer software to support the lesson.
Allow time to preview all of the activities and to read the science background pages.
Execution Time by Module:
The amount of time needed to complete any of these modules will vary depending on the length of available
teaching time and the ratio of computers to students in the class. One possible way to jump-start your lesson and
eliminate the trial-and-error that is sometimes needed to become familiar with a new lesson is to have the students
do just one activity or a part of a module. Use an overhead, an LCD, or a TV monitor or a Smartboard to project
the lesson to the class. The following are estimated times:
 Make A Comet - 30 minutes
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Comet Tails - 20 minutes
Facts, Myths, and Legends - 20 minutes
Physical Layout of Room:
Teachers may decide whether students will work in small groups of two or three, or individually. To maximize
learning, no more than three students should share a computer. Adaptations can be made to accommodate
classrooms having a single computer with Internet access. These might include using an overhead projector with
an LCD to project the computer image onto a screen or hooking up a computer to a television monitor.
LCD or Smartboard
Procedure / Directions:
This is a self-directed interactive computer activity. Students may work independently or in small groups to
complete each activity.
As an initiating activity you may do the following:
Use images of comets, which can be found at the following site, and project them
on a screen or television monitor. In a class discussion, ask students to describe what they already know about comets and
planets and what they can learn from the images.
Organize an informal debate or discussion on the topic, Comet Collisions with Earth: Fact or Myth?
Step-by-step instructions for using the “Amazing Space Comet Interactive”:
Comets consists of three activities, "Make a Comet," "Comet Tails," and "Facts, Myths, and Legends." It is
suggested that students do the activity "Make a Comet" first. The information provided in the activity teaches
some basic information about the structure of a comet and identifies two different kinds of comet tails. "Comet
Tails" is an assessment activity that is based upon what the students observed about comet tails in "Make A
This interactive may be found at the following website:
The “Make a Comet” asks students to create their own comet by selecting from a choice of possible ingredients.
The comet will include a nucleus, a coma, and either a dust tail, a gas-ion tail or a combination of dust tail and gasion tail(s). Students should draw the conclusion that the comet's ingredients affect the way it looks. After making
their comet, students can watch their comet go on an imaginary trip around the Sun. Three things can be observed:
(1) The comet moves faster as it gets closer to the Sun; (2) The comet's tail always points away from the Sun; (3)
The comet's tail becomes longer as the comet gets closer to the Sun, and eventually disappears as it moves farther
away from the Sun.
“Comet Tails” shows real images of comets and challenges students to identify the different types of tails. Clues
are provided if students need extra help recalling what they learned about comet tails in the "Make a Comet"
“Facts, Myths, and Legends” is a reading activity that offers interesting facts about famous comets. Also
included are myths and legends linked to the appearance of comets.
Evaluation / Assessment:
The activity Comet Tails is an assessment activity that is based upon what the students observed about comets in
the "Make A Comet" activity. It challenges students to observe images of different comets and asks them to
identify what type of tail or tails the comets are showing.
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Before beginning the activity "Make A Comet," students should click on the "Help" button, which will provide
information on how to operate the comet - making mixer machine. When the proper combination of ingredients
has been put together, students will see what their comet looks like and will learn some facts about it. There are six
possible types of comets that can be made using the mixer machine. They include: (1) a comet with no visible tail
(2) a comet with a dust tail (3) a comet with one ionized gas tail (4) a comet with two ionized gas tails (5) a comet
with a dust tail and one ionized gas tail and (6) a comet with a dust tail and two ionized gas tails.
Solutions can be found for "Comet Tails" within the activity. Before starting students should read the directions
called "Identify Comets." Based upon what students have observed in "Make A Comet," they now observe images
of actual comets and are asked to select one of five possible comet tail choices. If they are not certain about which
choice to make, click on the magnifying glass and clues will be provided. When the choice is correct, students are
rewarded with some additional information about the comet.
Follow-up Activities / Interdisciplinary Connections:
You can find other images of comets and planets at the Space Telescope Science Institute. These images could be
shown directly to the class using an overhead projector, an LCD, or a TV monitor. Paper-copy versions of images
taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and other NASA missions also are available at your closest NASA Educator
Resource Center.
Connections to other disciplines can be used to broaden classroom discussion of Comets.
Biology: Some scientists think that a comet or asteroid collided with the Earth and killed the dinosaurs millions of
years ago. Research and discuss this idea.
English: Ask students to write a poem or a story about a comet.
Social Studies: Ask students to research the relevance of comets in different cultures. Create a hypothetical
situation in which a comet collides with our planet. What steps would the survivors have to take to live in a postcollision world?
Make a Comet
A dramatic and effective way to begin a unit on comets is to make your own comet right in front of the class. The
ingredients for a comet are not difficult to find and watching a comet being "constructed" is something the students will
remember for a long time.
The "ingredients" for a six-inch comet are:
2 cups of water
2 cups dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide)
2 spoonfuls of sand or dirt
a dash of ammonia
a dash of organic material (dark corn syrup works well)
Other materials you should have on hand include:
an ice chest
a large mixing bowl (plastic if possible)
4 medium-sized plastic garbage bags
work gloves
a hammer, meat pounder, or rubber mallet
a large mixing spoon
paper towels
safety goggles
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Dry ice is available from ice companies in most cities (look under "ice" in the Yellow Pages for a local source). Day-old dry
ice works best, so you might want to buy it the afternoon before the day you do the activity. Keep the dry ice in an ice
chest when transporting it and in your refrigerator's freezer compartment overnight. Most ice companies have a minimum
on the amount of ice they will sell (usually 5 pounds). But having extra dry ice on hand will be useful because some will
evaporate and also because it is advisable to practice this activity at least once before doing it with the class.
Here are the steps for making a 6-inch comet (students make good baker's assistants for this exercise!):
Cut open one garbage bag and use it to line your mixing bowl.
Have all ingredients and utensils arranged in front of you.
Place water in mixing bowl.
Add sand or dirt, stirring well.
Add dash of ammonia
Add dash of organic material (e.g. corn syrup), stirring until well mixed.
Place dry ice in 3 garbage bags that have been placed inside each other. Be sure to wear gloves while handling dry ice
to keep from being burned.
Crush dry ice by pounding it with hammer.
Add the dry ice to the rest of the ingredients in the mixing bowl while stirring vigorously.
Continue stirring until mixture is almost totally frozen.
Lift the comet out of the bowl using the plastic liner and shape it as you would a snowball.
Unwrap the comet as soon as it is frozen sufficiently to hold its shape.
Now you can place the comet on display for the students to watch during the day as it begins to melt and sublimate (turn
directly from a solid to a gas - which is what carbon dioxide does at room temperature and comets do under the conditions
of interplanetary space when they are heated by the Sun).
The comet is reasonably safe to touch without getting burned by the dry ice, but it is still best to have a spoon or a stick for
the students to use while examining it. As the comet begins to melt, the class may notice small jets of gas coming from it.
These are locations where the gaseous carbon dioxide is escaping through small holes in the still frozen water. This type of
activity is also detected on real comets, where the jets can sometimes expel sufficient quantities of gas to make small
changes in the orbit of the comet.
After several hours, the comet will become a crater-filled ice ball as the more volatile carbon dioxide sublimates
before the water ice melts. Real comets are also depleted by sublimation each time they come near the Sun.
Ultimately; old comets may break into several pieces or even completely disintegrate. In some cases, the comet may
have a solid, rocky core that is then left to travel around the comet's orbit as a dark barren asteroid.
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