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Online Explorations
Planet Impact
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Discover the fierce force of gravity and pelt poor Jupiter with a comet!

Online Exploration: Planet Impact! is inspired by the crash of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter. In this interactive online activity, students investigate how the gravitational force of a large solar system body, such as Jupiter, can affect the path of a smaller body, such as a comet. They will launch a comet to see how gravity can change its path. Students learn how changing the speed, the angle of approach, and/or the masses of large and small bodies affect the force of gravity on a comet. They are then challenged to use this knowledge to crash their own comets into Jupiter or to make their comets fly past the planet without colliding with it.

Online interactive
5-8, but the material can be adapted for use in other grades at the teacher's discretion
How to use in the classroom

Online Exploration: Planet Impact! can be used to help students understand the force of gravity through animations that demonstrate how the path of a body changes as it approaches a target. The factors that may affect that path include the speed, the angle from which it is launched, the mass of the body, and the mass of the target. Students can also learn about how to set up controlled experiments since one variable is changed while the other three are held constant in each of the experimental modules. The last module asks students to apply what they have learned to make a comet hit or miss the planet Jupiter.

Special features of this activity include "Comet News" and "Science Scoop," which can be accessed from the buttons on many of the individual pages. "Comet News" provides information (in a newspaper format) concerning the crash of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter. Here, students can also access all the news articles and updates on recent remarkable comets, such as Comet LINEAR. Teachers can use the articles to chronicle the history of the comet as outlined in "Teaching Tips" (a follow-up section of the lesson plan). "Science Scoop" provides a further explanation of the science behind the interactive activity for each of the four learning modules. The explanation begins with a question whose answer is only revealed when the student activates it. Encourage students to look at the question before beginning the module, and think about an answer. Students can check out their thinking by doing the activity and then reading the answer in the "Science Scoop."

For more suggestions about how to use this activity in the classroom, access the lesson plan by clicking on the Teaching Tips button found on the first page of the activity. A science background component (the "All About S-L9" button) contains information about gravity and the crash of Shoemaker-Levy 9 that may be used by teachers and students. Other resources (the "S-L9 Links" button) include PDF files of Comet News and Comet LINEAR News, the images used in the activity, and related web sites. Specific information about computer requirements (the "Computer Needs" button) can also be found on the first page of the activity. In addition, “How to prepare for an online ‘Amazing Space’ activity” provides tips for setting up and using this activity in the classroom.

Related materials (accessed below) include Q&A's and a graphic organizer, which may be used for pre-engagement and/or follow-up activities.

Related materials

Q&A: Gravity

Q&A: Comets

Graphic Organizer: Comparison of comets and asteroids

Printable Parts

The printable images used in the activity are listed in the Grab Bag section, which can be found by clicking on "SL-9 Links" on the first page of the activity. In addition, Comet News and Comet LINEAR news can be printed from the PDF file. The graph for the extension activity is also available as a PDF file.