How to Make a Comet

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The 2009 Physics & Astronomy Open House at Indiana University is an annual event aimed at exposing real world scientific concepts to K-12 students in southern Indiana. The fall event—which also includes tours of the Department of Astronomy‘s 108-year-old Kirkwood Observatory and the Cyclotron—draws about 1000 visitors, including students from many local schools. Despite Swain West being open for almost six hours each time, we have never successfully completed all of the exhibits in a single outing. There is too much to explore.

On Saturday, we experimented with acoustics, light, optics, new energy sources, and free donuts. The highlight of the trip is usually the 45-minute demonstration show by the undergraduate physics club—which in the past has included ninjas and zombies—but even that couldn’t beat the creation of a comet.

In the hands-on astronomy exhibit, my oldest son devoted about ten minutes to making a comet. Ingredients include: water, ammonia, dirt, corn syrup, and dry ice … plus some sarcasm and melodrama. A couple hours later, the comet didn’t look as pretty, but it retained enough mass to make it to our freezer. I fear this may be a summer snow ball accident waiting to happen.

Maybe next year, the local rocket scientists can help us launch our comets through the Mesosphere.

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