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Comets, Asteroids, Meteors, Stars, & Constellations

Updated on January 10, 2015
Sun cookies
Sun cookies

This is part 3 of a 4 part hands-on unit study on Astronomy. Make a comet, study and paint Van Gogh's Starry Night, decorate a cookie to learn the parts of the sun, form asteroids out of mashed potatoes, assemble constellations marshmallows, and more! My lessons are geared toward 3rd-4th grade level children and their siblings. These are lessons I created to do with a weekly co-op. We meet each week for 2 1/2 hours and have 14 children between the ages of 1-13. Use these fun lessons with your classroom, family, after school program, or co-op!

This topic has so many great activities, that it was hard to pare them down to a 2 1/2 hour lesson. I included a number of activities that I labeled "(If you have extra time)" for the activities we were not able to squeeze into our co-op time, but they would be great to do if you're not limited by time.

Comet on a stick
Comet on a stick

Introduction & Comets

***Please bring a toothbrush for each of your children for to use for painting. Bring extra if you can. Please bring pastels if you own any.***

1) Stretch. Pray. Discuss Psalm 147:4 & Philippians 2:12-16a.

2) Discuss comets and look at pictures. (Solar System Voyage by Serge Brunier and some of Comets and Meteors by Jeanne Bendick.)

(Note: I do not teach that comets originate in the Kuiper Belt & Oort Cloud. There is little evidence that new comets are being created. You can read Astronomy and the Bible by Donald DeYoung and/or Exploring Creation Through Astronomy by Fulbright for more information.)

3) Make a Comet on a Stick:

a. Make a tiny hole in the ball so it can be mounted on the skewer (the fit of the skewer should be tight) or simply stab the skewer into the ball if you're using a Styrofoam balls. Mount the ball on the skewer. If you use paper instead, mold it to the shape you believe should represent your comet nucleus.

b. Place the strips on top of the ball so the two pieces cross each other in an "X" and the lengths of all sides of the strips hang down evenly.

c. Attach the strips to the ball or paper with the 5" strip of tape or narrow masking tape wrapped over the strips and around the circumference of the nucleus.

d. Use a hairdryer to simulate a portion of the sun's solar energy as it meets the comet. The heat from the Sun warms the surface of the comet nucleus. This causes gas, ice, particles and rocky debris of various sizes to burst from the comet in all directions (called coma) and the solar wind causes these substances to flow back behind the nucleus to form a "tail" behind the comet. Have someone (or 2 people if you have 2 hairdryers) be the "Sun" and stand in place with the hairdryer. The hairdryer simulates the solar wind causing the comet "tail" to form and trail behind the comet. Aim the hairdryer at the comet and keep it trained on the comet as it approaches and as it moves away. Have a second person hold the comet by the stick and walk in an elliptical (elongated or oval) orbit around the Sun. As the comet gets closer to the Sun, the Sun's solar influence affects the comet so that the gas and debris forms a tail that is pushed toward the back of the nucleus. This tail flows in opposition to the Sun so that the nucleus is between the Sun and the tail. As it travels away, the lost influence of the Sun causes the tail to diminish or in this case, fall. The solar wind from the Sun, which is made of electrically-charged particles, uses electrostatic attraction and electrical transfer to form the comet's gas and debris into a tail.

YOU WILL NEED: Twelve 2" styrofoam or other ball or an 8 ½ X 11 piece of paper, twenty-four 1 - 2 ft lengths of mylar gift strips, raffia, ribbon, or tinsel (preferably white and blue), twelve 5" strips of tape, 1-2 hairdryers, glue, & twelve wooden skewers (shish kabob type)

Solar System Voyage
Solar System Voyage

This has beautiful photographs and is a well-organized, over-sized coffee-table style book. I looked through a few similar-style books, and this one was our favorite.

 
Aerogel
Aerogel

Aerogel

4) (If you have extra time) Using jell-o, demonstrate how scientists use aerogel to capture parts of comets to study:

a. Ask you could capture particles from a comet. Would a huge net work? No, the particles are microscopic. Sticky flypaper? They travel so fast that they would tear through the thin paper. Buckets of syrup or water? Syrup or water would freeze in the vacuum of space or evaporate from the heat of the Sun. The scientists really had a problem-challenge - to find a good collecting device.

b. Collecting materials from a comet's coma is no easy feat! The impact velocity of the particles as they are captured will be up to 6 times the speed of a bullet fired from a rifle. These particles are smaller than grains of sand. High-speed capture could alter their shape and chemical composition or vaporize them entirely.

c. Scientists needed something that would capture very tiny delicate particles without damaging the shape. The substance had to be strong to survive the launch into space, lightweight to keep liftoff costs low, and not melt or freeze in the extreme temperatures of space. Also the substance needed to be relatively see-through so the particle could be found easily.

d. Take out the cup of gelatin, straw, and lead pellets.

e. Place a lead pellet in the straw. Tip the straw so the lead slides to the covered end. Pinch the straw, trapping the lead pellet at the top of the covered end.

f. Take a big breath and at the same time, stop pinching the straw and blow the lead pellet into the "aerogel" with a quick, sharp blow. (As a precaution, you can cover the tip of the straw with a piece of nylon so you don't inhale the lead pellet.) Shoot several pieces into the cup.

h. Point out the track mark to the lead pellet. This is how STARDUST collected pieces of a comet.

i. What is aerogel? Feels like styrafoam. Mostly transparent. Scientists refer to it as blue smoke. Sponge-like structure, in which 99% of the volume is empty space.

YOU WILL NEED: 1 clear plastic cup of jell-o (I used flavored jell-o), 1 straw, & lead pellets

Comet
Comet

C-o-m-e-t Song

5) Sing C-O-M-E-T song

(tune: B-I-N-G-O)

(Revised from this C-O-M-E-T song)

Comets are very cold (Cross arms in front of chest and shake like you're cold)

A "dirty snowball" I've been told (Pretend to pack and then throw a snowball)

C-O-M-E-T (3x)

Comets are very cold (Cross arms in front of chest and shake like you're cold)

The coma & tails shine like gold (Wiggle fingers in front of you like the tail)

The sun makes their gases explode (Raise up both arms to signal an explosion)

C-O-M-E-T (3x)

The coma & tails shine like gold (Wiggle fingers in front of you like the tail)

Ice, dust, and rock to behold (Hold out both hands with palms up)

An elliptical orbit Halley's Comet strolled (Move index finger around in an elliptical shape)

C-O-M-E-T (3x)

Ice, dust, and rock to behold (Hold out both hands with palms up)

Asteroid potatoes
Asteroid potatoes

Asteroids

6) Review planets and mention asteroid belt. Show pictures of asteroids. (Solar System Voyage by Serge Brunier.) Mention that this may be there because there used to be a planet between Mars and Jupiter but it got destroyed. Also mention that many of these are made of the same material as rocks here on Earth. (You can read Exploring Creation Through Astronomy by Fulbright for more information.)

7) Make asteroid potatoes: Spray a baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray. Children will get 2 spoonfuls of mashed potatoes (about 1/2 cup each) and shape each handful into an asteroid shape, using their fingers to poke dents in it. Bake at 375 for 20-25 minutes. (I broiled them for 3 minutes at the end.)

YOU WILL NEED: 12 cups of mashed potatoes (If using instant potatoes, make it thick.), baking sheet, non-stick cooking spray

Exploring Creation With Astronomy (Young Explorer Series) (Young Explorer (Apologia Educational Ministries))
Exploring Creation With Astronomy (Young Explorer Series) (Young Explorer (Apologia Educational Ministries))

We own this and I have found it very helpful. It is written in a conversational manner, so it's easy to read to younger children, but it still provides such in depth information that I use it as a reference as well.

 
Meteroite
Meteroite

Meteors

8) Quickly discuss meteoroids, meteors, and meteorites. Show pictures from Solar System Voyage by Serge Brunier and read a tiny bit from Comets and Meteors by Jeanne Bendick.

9) (Optional) Pass around a meteorite.

YOU WILL NEED: a meteorite

10) (If you have extra time) Have a homemade meteorites hunt. A few days in advance, combine 2 c. Flour, 2 c. Used coffee grounds, 1 c. salt, 1/2 c. sand, & 2 T. powdered tempera paint (optional). Slowly add 1 1/2 c. water, kneading until it's the consistency of bread dough. Break off a piece about the size of a baseball. Roll it into a ball and then make a hole in the center of the ball big enough to hide treasures in. Fill the hole with small treasures (small plastic toys, balls, wrapped pieces of candy, quarters for iron, nickels for nickel, etc.) and seal the hole with some extra dough. Let your "meteorites" air dry until hard (2 to 4 days). (Depending on what you put inside, you could instead bake them in the oven on a cookie sheet at 150 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.) When they are dry, go outside and place them around the yard. Tell your children that there was a meteor shower and to go outside and see if they can find any meteorites. When they've found them all, let them break the meteorites open and enjoy the treasures!

YOU WILL NEED: Homemade meteorites made from 2 c. Flour, 2 c. Used coffee grounds, 1 c. salt, 1/2 c. sand, 2 T. powdered tempera paint (optional), and small treasures.

Dust cloud smudge art
Dust cloud smudge art

Nebulae

11) Look at pictures from Hubble telescope & quickly discuss nebulae. (Solar System Voyage by Serge Brunier.)

(Note: I do not teach that new stars are being created. Stars are dying, though. You can read Astronomy and the Bible by Donald DeYoung for more information.)

12) Make dust cloud smudge art: On black construction paper, use pastels and smudge the colors so they blend together to look like a dust cloud. Dip toothbrush in white and/or silver paint and make lots of star spots. Glue on some sequins. (From pp. 18-19 from Art Facts Space Art Activities by Polly Goodman).

YOU WILL NEED: sequins, white and/or silver paint, 12 pieces of black construction paper (1/4 sheet of construction paper), glue, pastels or chalk

Sun cookies
Sun cookies

The Sun (Our Nearest Star)

13) Read parts of a book about the sun: Sun by Steve Tomecek or The Sun by Jeanne Bendick.

14) Decorate sun cookies.

(Decorate 1 ahead of time to serve as a model.) What does the Sun look like? Is it the same all over? Is it the same all the time? Show telescope images of the sun. Spread white frosting on top of cookie. Shake some yellow and red sprinkles on the frosting = granular appearance of the photosphere. Place a few chocolate chips on = sunspots. Sunspots appear in pairs so put 2 chips close to each other. Place a few pieces of licorice = small arches. They can stand straight up or lie flat to protrude off the edge of the cookie = prominences. Prominences are generally found near sunspots, where the area is active and has a stronger magnetic field.

YOU WILL NEED: 13 sugar cookies, white frosting, yellow and sugar crystals (in baking aisle), short strips of red licorice string, miniature chocolate chips or brown miniature M&M's, 12 spoons, 12 napkins, and 12 cups for water

Books we used on the sun

Jump Into Science: Sun
Jump Into Science: Sun

This was the best all-encompassing book on the sun. It includes both information about the sun as a star but also includes the sun in relation to the Earth (as a review from what we learned last week). *If you are teaching young children (preschool & kindergarten), "The Sun: Our Nearest Star" (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out) by Franklyn M. Branley might be a better option. It is simpler and has nice illustrations.

 
Sun, The (Pb) (Earlybird)
Sun, The (Pb) (Earlybird)

This is worth checking out of your library if they carry a copy. It shows all aspects of the sun -- including it being a star. It has drawings rather than photographs (which appeals to my children.) There is an evolutionary bias to this book, so we skipped over those words. We also read the book on comets and meteors by the same author.

 

Stars and Van Gogh's Starry Night

15) Read parts of a book about stars: Stars by Steve Tomecek. If you are teaching preschoolers or kindergarten, read Stars! Stars! Stars! by Nancy Wallace.

Jump Into Science: Stars
Jump Into Science: Stars

We read a bunch of books on stars. It was hard finding a good storybook that spoke of stars and included more than just constellations. This was our favorite one.

 
Stars! Stars! Stars!
Stars! Stars! Stars!

This has cute illustrations showing bunnies going through an astronomy museum and hearing all about stars from a tour guide. It includes lots of information about stars but still keeps the attention of even my preschoolers.

 
Starry Night
Starry Night

16) Ask what shape stars typically are (5 sided). What shape are they really? (a circle like our sun). Look at "Starry Night" from Van Gogh and discuss how he painted stars. (I used pictures from What Makes a Van Gogh a Van Gogh? by Richard Muhlberger, which was good but I would have preferred a better book.)

17) Paint your own version of "Starry Night." Looking at the picture for a model, paint the concentric circles for stars. If desired, also paint the rigid-lined town below OR cut out pieces of paper as house shapes and paste them to the bottom of the painting. (from p. 47 of Discovering Great Artists by MaryAnn Kohl)

YOU WILL NEED: white, yellow, and blue paint (mix some white into the yellow & blue to give you lighter shades), 12 pieces of black construction paper (1/2 sheet of construction paper), 12 paintbrushes, glue (optional), scissors (optional), & scraps of paper (optional)

What Makes A Van Gogh A Van Gogh?
What Makes A Van Gogh A Van Gogh?

This has a fold-out picture of "Starry Night" so the children can see it in greater detail. Also look for "Vincent's Colors" by Vincent van Gogh.

 
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Constellation Finder

18) Read short parts of books about constellations: The Big Dipper by Franklyn M. Branley, Once Upon a Starry Night by Jacqueline Mitton, and Zoo in the Sky by Jacqueline Mitton.

19) Make constellation finder

YOU WILL NEED: 12 copies of the first two pages of this Star Wheel (please cut out ahead of time) and tape

20) Read Job 9:9 and Job 38:31-32.

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Glowing Constellations

21) (If you have extra time) Discuss & demonstrate how stars in a constellation are actually far apart from each other:

Ask if they think stars in a constellation are close together or far apart. Stars in a constellation are not all the same distance from Earth. Although stars in our night sky seem to be the same distance away from Earth, they are not. Most stars are trillions of miles away from Earth, and from each other. It's just that stars are all so far away that our eyes can't tell how much farther some are than others. Stars that form constellations are not usually close to each other. Choose 3 children to represent three stars in the handle of the Big Dipper. Give each child a flashlight. One child is Mizar (MY-zar) and is 78 light years away from Earth. Child #2 will stand two feet to the left of and two feet behind Mizar. He/she is Alioth (AL-ee-oth) and is 81 light years away from Earth. Child #3 should stand five feet to the right of and six feet behind Mizar. He/she is Alkaid (al-KAYED) and is 100 light years away from Earth. Turn off the lights. Have Mizar, Alioth, and Alkaid turn on their flashlights and point them toward the rest of the group. What do the children notice about the stars? Do the stars appear to be the same distance away? (The stars should appear to be close to each other). Why do they think this happens? Because stars are so far away from Earth, they appear to line up in the sky and form constellations. Stars in the Big Dipper are closer to each other than most stars are in other constellations.

YOU WILL NEED: 3 flashlights

22) (If you have extra time) Go into a dark room (like the bathroom) and project a constellation globe OR read a glow-in-the-dark constellation book like The Glow-In-the-dark Planetarium Book by Annie Ingle.

YOU WILL NEED: a constellation globe (optional)

Scientific Explorer Space Theater Planetarium
Scientific Explorer Space Theater Planetarium

This is one of the best inexpensive miniature planetariums available. It is accurate enough and the constellations are easy to identify. Another good option is getting Fascinations Celestial 8" Globe.

 
The Glow-In-the-dark Planetarium Book
The Glow-In-the-dark Planetarium Book

After reading through a tall stack of decent storybooks on constellations, I took my children (ages 8, 4, and 2) into the bathroom (so we had a dark room) and started reading the first page of this book that looks like a bright sunny day. It mentions how the stars are in the sky even during the day, but the sun's light prevents them from being seen. I turned off the lights and the page glowed with tiny dots and a cresent moon. My children gasped in amazement. They became increasingly excited with each page as it would show a drawing illustrating the constellation and briefly mentioning the story behind it. Then I'd turn off the lights and they would have to try find the constellation amid all the other glow-in-the-dark stars. * Other good glow-in-the-dark constellation books include "Glow-in-the-Dark Constellations" by C. E. Thompson and "Constellations: A Glow-in-the-Dark Guide to the Night Sky" by Chris Sasaki.

 
Big dipper constellation using marshmallows
Big dipper constellation using marshmallows

Marshmallow Constellations

23) Make marshmallow constellations

YOU WILL NEED: 1-2 boxes of toothpicks, 2 bags of miniature marshmallows (preferably colored), & 5 copies of p. 2 printed from p. 2 of this lesson that shows the constellation patterns.

Favorite Books on Constellations - These were some of our favorites that we read as a family but didn't use during co-op.

Also look for Zoo in the Sky: A Book of Animal Constellations by Jacqueline Mitton, Once Upon a Starry Night by Jacqueline Mitton, Wishing on a Star: Constellation Stories and Stargazing Activities for Kids by Fran Lee, and Find the Constellations by H. A. Rey.

The Big Dipper (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 1)
The Big Dipper (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 1)

This does a great job of explaining constellations, the history behind them, and their location.

 
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Review Songs & Lesson

We'll sing these songs during our star gazing party at the end of our unit.

24) Review Planets Go Spinning song from the Solar System lesson.
(Tune: "When Johnny Comes Marching")
(Revised version from Ranger Rick Naturscope: Astronomy)
The planets revolve around the sun in Orion's Arm. (Flex arm muscle)
The planets revolve around the sun in Orion's Arm. (Flex arm muscle)
The planets revolve around the sun (Twist index finger in a circle)
And spin on their axes every one. (Spin around in place)
As they all go spinning, (Spin around in place)
Around and around in the Milky Way. (Spin around in place)

Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars (Terrestrial planets) (Hold up 1, 2, 3, & then 4 fingers)
Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars (Terrestrial planets) (Hold up 1, 2, 3, & then 4 fingers)
Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, (Hold up 1, 2, 3, & then 4 fingers)
All whirling and twirling among the stars (Spin around in place)
As they all go spinning, (Spin around in place)
Around and around in the Milky Way. (Spin around in place)

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune (The Gas Giants) (Hold up 1, 2, 3, & then 4 fingers)
Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune (The Gas Giants) (Hold up 1, 2, 3, & then 4 fingers)
We now have to leave Pluto out of this tune (Hold out both hands, shake head, & frown)
As they all go spinning, (Spin around in place)
Around and around in the Milky Way. (Spin around in place)

25) Review Day, Night, & Year song from last week's The Sun & Moon lesson.
(Tune: The Farmer in the Dell)
(Revised version from Solar System in Motion)
The Earth rotates around, (Spin around in place)
The Earth rotates around,
Once a day, in 24 hours, (Tap wrist like you're tapping a watch)
The Earth rotates around.

The moon rotates 'round the Earth, (Hold up 1 finger & spin around in place)
The moon rotates 'round the Earth,
Once a month, 29 days, (Tap wrist like you're tapping a watch)
The moon rotates 'round the Earth.

The Earth revolves 'round the sun, (Hold out one finger & wave around in a large circle)
The Earth revolves 'round the sun,
Once a year, 365 days, (Tap wrist like you're tapping a watch)
The Earth revolves 'round the sun.

26) (If time allows) Eat asteroid potatoes.

27) Five minute review of what we've learned.

Great Picture Books on Women Astronomers

Look Up!: Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer
Look Up!: Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer

Also look for "Annie Jump Cannon, Astronomer" by Carole Gerber and "Maria's Comet" by Deborah Hopkinson.

 

Ready for the next lesson?

Making planet pizzas from Lesson 1 on the solar system
Making planet pizzas from Lesson 1 on the solar system

Make planet pizzas as you study planets, form the lunar phases using Oreo cookies as you study the moon, study and paint Van Gogh's "Starry Night " as you study stars, build and blast off rockets as you study space exploration, make presentations on individual planets, and more during this 4 part hands-on unit study on the solar system.

1. Solar System Lesson - This is part 1 of a 4 part hands-on unit on Astronomy. Make planet pizzas, take a planet walk, and more in this exciting lesson on our fascinating solar system!

2. The Sun and the Moon Lesson - This is part 2 of a 4 part hands-on unit study on Astronomy. Form the lunar phases using Oreo cookies, drop balls in flour to make a crater-filled lunar surface, recreate Galileo's famous gravity experiment, and more!

3. Comets, Asteroids, Meteors, Stars, & Constellations - This is part 3 of a 4 part hands-on unit study on Astronomy. Make a comet, study and paint Van Gogh's "Starry Night," decorate a cookie to learn the parts of the sun, form asteroids out of mashed potatoes, assemble constellations using marshmallows, and more!

4. Astronauts, Rockets, and Space Ships Lesson - This is part 4 of a 4 part hands-on unit on Astronomy. Make rockets, try out astronaut tasks, make and eat a spacecraft, and more in this fun lesson on space exploration!

5. Astronomy Presentations and Field Trip Ideas - This is the culminating activity we did after a 4 part hands-on unit on astronomy. We held a star-gazing party and dinner. The children each presented on an assigned planet and they sang the astronomy songs we've been learning during our unit. Also included are the field trips we took during this unit.

Which constellation is your favorite?

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What Is Your Favorite Constellation? - Or just leave me a note. I love getting feedback from you!

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    • iijuan12 profile image
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      iijuan12 4 years ago from Florida

      @Babu Mohan: Thank you so much!

    • Babu Mohan profile image

      Mohan Babu 4 years ago from Chennai, India

      A very refreshing perspective on solar system bodies like asteroids and comets.

    • iijuan12 profile image
      Author

      iijuan12 5 years ago from Florida

      @rtlmom: Thank you!

    • profile image

      rtlmom 5 years ago

      We are loving your astronomy unit. So fun!

    • iijuan12 profile image
      Author

      iijuan12 5 years ago from Florida

      @antoniow: Thank you!

    • profile image

      antoniow 5 years ago

      Very interesting lens, great job! Squidlike

    • WritingForChange profile image

      WritingForChange 5 years ago

      Fantastic lens. I'd add "The Little Prince" to the book list for adding fun and a bit of whimsy to any astronomy based lesson. My homeschooled 11 year old also learns a huge amount from the Bad Astronomy website - run by an astronomer who teaches astronomy through talking about all the myths and unrealities perpetrated by TV, movies and other popular culture.

    • profile image

      julieannbrady 5 years ago

      Wow, I was wondering where you were going with the toothbrush and the hair dryer! It's great to have a level of creativity and interest to your lesson plans!

    • CruiseReady profile image

      CruiseReady 6 years ago from East Central Florida

      Really cool demo using jello to show how aerogel works!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Nice!

    • lasertek lm profile image

      lasertek lm 6 years ago

      Very informative and great looking lens. Awesome job!

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      WoW! Such a wealth of information for all those interested in the heavenly bodies. Thanx a lot for the share.