What Exactly IS a Comet?

Studio 360

Objective: Assemble and organize a collection of comet descriptions, drawing on information from multiple digital sources; incorporate these descriptions into an illustration of a comet, using words and sentences instead of colors to explain what a comet is like.

Target Grades: 6th-9th

Content Areas: English Language Arts, Earth and the Solar System
Topics: Analyze diverse media and formats; develop a topic with relevant information and examples, solar system objects, orbits, solar system origin.
Time required: One 90-minute class period

Materials: Internet-access, blank paper, colored pencils, eraser,


NGSS: Disciplinary Core Idea ESS1.B Earth and the Solar System

Humans have been observing comets for thousands of years. Though comets appear infrequently, when they do appear, they can be visible to the naked eye at night as a bright white star with a long, misty white tail trailing behind it.

On November 12th, 2014, the Philae lander successfully landed on comet 67P after a 10-year, 3-billion-mile voyage aboard spacecraft Rosetta. The event marks the first-ever landing of a space vehicle on a comet. Both Rosetta and Philae are loaded with scientific equipment for measuring the composition, gravity, appearance, and surface of the comet, opening a new chapter in our scientific understanding of comets and our early universe.

But what is a comet, anyway? What do we know about their surface, appearance, size, tail, color, brightness, age, movement … and even their smell? In each of the interviews below, scientists (some of whom were part of the Rosetta mission) describe various comet characteristics. As you listen to these interviews, take notes as the scientists describe what a comet is like. You can use this to help you write down these descriptions. 

You will then incorporate your comet descriptions, literally, into your own text illustration of a comet. A text illustration uses actual descriptive text to form the shapes and objects in a drawing. This is a great way to quickly visualize all the information you’ve learned about comets. Here’s an example of a text illustration:

How To Create a Text Illustration

1.     Start by lightly sketching a large drawing of a comet with a pencil. Do not color any parts of your illustration, and leave space around the outside for additional drawing. Here’s a printable comet sketch example: 

2.     Using colorful pencils, decorate parts of your comet illustration with the descriptive text you collected from various scientist interviews (see below). Try to match the text with the part of the comet that it describes. For example, you could outline the tail of your comet with the words that describe the tail, and fill the tail with the text that describes its smell and chemical composition. Here’s an incomplete example:

3.     Go further: How can you add the descriptions of comet characteristics that can’t be seen—such as movement and gravity—to your illustration? Try it!

Listen, Watch, Read about Comets

SciFri Excerpt: Science Diction: Comet  Dec 17th, 2010

SciFri Excerpt: A Journey to the Oort Cloud, Where Comets are Born Jan 4th, 2013

SciFri Excerpt: ISON: The Comet of the Century… or Is It? Nov 22nd, 2013

SciFri Excerpt: Close-Up With a Comet Aug 15th, 2014

SciFri Excerpt: The First Touchdown on a Comet Nov 14th, 2014

SciFri Excerpt: Scientists Sniff Smelly Comet Oct 31st, 2014

SciFri Video: Comet’s Tail Shines Light on Sun Jun 7th, 2013

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