Lunar and Planetary Institute


Activity: A Tail of Trails

When a meteroid is observed to fall toward Earth and the meteorite is collected because of the visual observation, it is called a “meteorite fall.” When no one sees the meteroid, but the meteorites are collected, they are called “meteorite finds.” Meteorite finds are the most common; all the meteorites recovered in Antarctica are “finds.”Children create an “Earth” box containing some of Earth’s biomes — such as desert, forest, tundra, ocean, mountains — along with Earth’s atmosphere. They then simulate Earth’s encounter with a comet trail and the resulting meteor shower. The children discover that most meteoroids burn up in Earth’s atmosphere and that only a small percentage land on Earth as meteorites. And even though meteorites are evenly distributed across Earth’s surface, some are more easily found than others.

The Activity
Ask the children about the origin of meteors and meteorites. Mark their responses — correct or incorrect — to revisit at the close of the activity.

  • Why do we occasionally see meteor showers on Earth?
  • What are meteor showers?
  • Do meteors sometimes occur alone rather than in showers?
  • What is a meteorite?

Invite the children to work individually or in groups of 2 or 3 to make a model of Earth in a shoe box. Have them color the paper (sized to fit the box bottom) with biomes such as grasslands, oceans, forests, ice, and deserts. Their map can have islands and continents in any shape they wish, but they should have approximately the same percent of coverage for each of the biomes listed below:

Oceans – about 67% of Earth’s surface
Deserts – about 7% of Earth’s surface
Forests – about 11% of Earth’s surface
Grasslands (with tundra) – about 12% of Earth’s surface
Ice sheets and glaciers – about 3% of Earth’s surface

Have the children make a color key for each of the biomes. When they are finished, have them glue the paper to the bottom of the box.

Ask the children to carefully poke about 20–25 evenly spaced holes through the lid of the shoebox using a pencil point (you may choose to pre-make the holes for younger children). Just the pencil point, not the barrel, should penetrate the lid, as the holes should not be too big.

Give each child or group a thin, 6x6 inch piece of cotton batting. Have them stretch and separate the batting until it is very thin and fluffy. Cover the top of the box lid with the batting using tape or glue to secure the corners. Do not make the layer of fluff too thick. It should be thin enough to allow some glitter to get into the shoe box — but not much.

Once the Earth box is completed, invite the children to create a meteor shower using the comet they made in “Comet Encounters.” Alternately, have each child from the group shake glitter from their comet onto their shoebox atmosphere.

  • What does the fluff represent? (Earth’s atmosphere.)
  • What does the glitter represent?(Meteoroids — particles in space.)
  • What do they observe happens to the meteoroids as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere?
  • Do all of the meteoroids make it to Earth’s surface? (No; most are trapped by the cotton fluff. These represent the particles that burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.)
  • As meteoroids burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, what do they create? (They create streaks of light that we call meteors.)

Meteors are what we often (mistakenly) call shooting stars, and when there are a number of meteors, like in this activity, the event is called a “meteor shower.”

After all the “comets” have passed over Earth’s atmosphere, ask the children to remove the lid from the box, and look underneath the atmosphere to see how many meteoroids made it to Earth!

Be careful not to let any of the meteors fall back inside  the box  (some probably  will, however. and these would be called “meteorite falls,” which occur when a meteoroid is actually observed  landing on  Earth).

  • Did any of the glitter meteoroids make it through the cotton fluff atmosphere? (A few do. Because the dust and particles from comets are so tiny, the vast majority of cometary particles burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. Most meteorites actually come from asteroids, not comets.)
  • What are the meteoroids/meteors called once they land on Earth? (Meteorites)
  • Are the meteorites fairly evenly dispersed across the biomes in their Earth box? (Yes)
  • In which biomes are the meteorites most easily found by scientists and why? (The desert environments, including the polar desert of Antarctica, because they are easier to see, as they are dark rocks against a white background, and they do not deteriorate as rapidly in these dry conditions; these samples from space hold exciting secrets about the age and origin of our solar system!)


More Activities


Last updated
January 9, 2007


Ages 9–14

How Long?
60 minutes

What's Needed?
For each child or group of 2–3:

  • • A shoebox with lid
  • • Light-colored paper cut to fit the bottom of the shoebox
  • • Cotton quilting fluff
  • • Dark-colored glitter (black or dark blue is best!)
  • • Colored pencils or markers
  • • Glue or tape
  • • Pencil
  • • Comet from Comet Encounters Activity (optional)

Connections to the National Science Education Standard(s)

Standards A, D&F (grades 5–8): The Earth is located in a system that includes planets, moons, and smaller objects.  External processes of the Earth system cause natural hazards, even possible  asteroid (and meteorite) impacts. Develop a model that explains  the probability of a meteorite landing.