Last week on the tvweb, this happened: astronomer Derrick Pitts turned up once more on “The Late Late Show”. And even though science-loving Craig Ferguson has moved on to new horizons, Director Pitts stayed and showed Guest Host Wayne Brady how to make a comet. So I looked back at my entries for this project and realized they need some updates, and particularly some visuals. Have patience–it’s a multi-entry blog feature, so look for two more entries for the complete Updated Edition of “Cooking With Kuiper.”
The Kuiper Belt–that donut-shaped aggregation of hundreds-of-thousands of rocky objects orbiting beyond Neptune–is one of the most interesting regions of the Solar System just now. Just last year, NASA’s Deep Impact explorer hurled a probe into the surface of Comet Tempel 1, flinging up a curtain of debris to reveal more about the comet’s composition.
NASA’s New Horizons mission is due to arrive in July 2015 at Pluto–the most famous Kuiper Belt object–to observe the newly-redesignated dwarf planet and its five moons and then head out to explore. You can check in on the progress of the mission at NASA’s home for New Horizons. There is a general agreement among astronomers that the comets which return again and again (periodic comets) began in the Kuiper belt.
In this project, we’ll be building a model of a comet using household supplies to represent most of the comet’s components and dry ice to capture the icy-cold environment of the Kuiper Belt. While most Messy-Monday projects are entirely hands-on this particular activity is meant as a demonstration with controlled audience participation. Some students may be careful enough to work with dry ice…but too many are not, and the step at which the dry ice is added can be dynamic and unpredictable.
A study of comets draws in much of what students should know about their planetary system and extends that knowledge into new and intriguing areas. Students in intermediate grades probably know the basics of comets…that they come from the far reaches of the solar system, that they have tails, and that a comet crashing into the earth makes a cool disaster movie. They might be surprised to know that scientists still want to find out more about comets, because all we know about comets so far is from watching them on their travels through the solar system. Just a few months ago, the Rosetta spacecraft launched in 2004 by the European Space Agency actually landed a robotic explorer named Philae on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, so why not launch an investigation into the nature and structure of comets by building our own lumpy, irregular, gas-spewing comets?
This activity is best paired with at least one hands-on activity centering on comets. The second activity in this series combines a crafting-style model construction project and a cometary motion simulation game. Other resources can provide other activities. For instance, students can make a flip-book illustrating a short-period comet’s behavior as it travels from the orbit of Neptune to the sun and back. And users of Pixel Gravity can run a simulation of the comet impact which led to the demise of the dinosaurs.
In the next installment, we’ll assemble a supply list for this project. I recommend you plan to build at least two comets, to let more kids participate and also to illustrate just how different two comets can be.