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Solar System

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Lesson Focus


Earth & Space Science

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Learners explore the various parts of a comet through up-close investigations aboard a spaceship. Afterwards, learners destroy a comet that is on a collision course with Earth.

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Now You Know

After completing this tutorial, you will be able to complete the following:

  • Explain that comets follow a variety of orbital paths around the Sun.
  • Describe a comet’s (a) nucleus as being composed of rock, dust, and frozen gases, and (b) coma as an atmosphere of water, ice, and dust around the nucleus.
  • Explain that a comet’s tail is made of dust and ions, and that it points away from the Sun as it orbits.

Everything You'll Have Covered

A comet is a relatively small rock mass in the solar system that orbits the Sun. When it approaches the Sun, the surface of its nucleus begins to warm, and volatile substances evaporate. The evaporated particles boil off and carry small, solid particles with them. This forms an atmosphere of gas and dust called the coma. The coma and the nucleus together form the head of the comet.

As comets approach the Sun, they develop enormous tails of luminous material that extend for millions of kilometers from the head, away from the Sun. Solar winds push materials away from the comet's head at different velocities, depending on the size and mass of the materials.

Each time a comet visits the Sun, it loses some of its volatile substances. Eventually it becomes just another rocky mass in the solar system.

The word "comet" comes from the Latin word cometes, and from the Greek word kome, meaning hair of the head. This all began back in the day of Aristotle, who called comets stars with hair. Thus, the astronomical symbol for comets looks like a circle with a tail that looks like hair

Tutorial Details

Approximate Time 20 Minutes
Pre-requisite Concepts None
Course Earth & Space Science
Type of Tutorial Concept Development
Key Vocabulary astronomer, collision, coma