Invite the children, in groups of 3 to 4, to create their own model of a comet using the materials provided. They should design their comet so that it can be easily carried, and so they can sprinkle comet dust (glitter) at the appropriate places. Let the children devise ways to meet these criteria. Every comet will be different!
Have the children name their comets. A comet is named using the last name of the person — or people — who first spotted it (like Shoemaker-Levy or Hale-Bopp). If they are working in groups, the name of their comet may be pretty long!
Once they have made their comets, have the children describe its components.
Take the children outside to a large, safe, paved area, and divide into groups. Help each group use the sidewalk chalk to draw a big model of the solar system — it does not have to be to scale, but the planets should be in the proper order. It is best to have a drawing with a diameter that stretches about 15 feet (5 meters) from the center of the Sun to Pluto.
Draw the different planets, with a rough circle to mark their orbits around the Sun. This would be a good time to discuss “elliptical orbits” by pointing out the highly elliptical orbit of Pluto. This model can be used as a springboard for later discussion of cometary orbits. Walk through the solar system with the children and prompt them to share what they know about comets.
Have the children take their comets to the Kuiper belt beyond Pluto. Invite them to walk their comet in an orbit around the Sun; some comets periodically orbit the Sun. The orbits often are very elliptical, unlike the more circular patterns of the planets.
As the children carry their comets close to the Sun, have them shake their comets so that cometary dust (glitter) is sprinkled along their path. The closer they get to the Sun, the more “dust” their comet should release.
Have the children demonstrate the changing direction of the comet tails as their comet moves around the Sun.
The pavement drawing of the solar system should have lots of different colored glitter paths where the comets have orbited the Sun. Have the children trace Earth’s path around the Sun.
Activity modified from a comet exercise of the Astromaterials Research Exploration Science (ARES) Educational Outreach Team of the Johnson Space Center.
Connections to the National Science Education Standard(s)
Standard D (grades K–4): Develop an understanding of the locations and movements of objects in the night sky.
Standard D (grades 5–8): The Earth is located in a system that includes planets, moons, and smaller objects, such as comets, most of which are in regular and predictable motion.