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San Diego, CA; December 13 2012—The new Great Balls of Fire! Comets, Asteroids, Meteors exhibition will make its West Coast debut at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center on January 19, 2013, and remain through April 28, 2013. The threat of a catastrophic impact from an asteroid or comet is a staple of popular culture. If there was a dinosaur-killer in Earth’s past, will humankind suffer the same fate? What are the chances and how do we assess the risks? For that matter, what are asteroids, comets, and meteorites, and where do they come from?

Great Balls of Fire! Comets, Asteroids, Meteors explores recent discoveries and cutting-edge science relating to these incredible objects. Have you ever wondered about the origins of comets, asteroids and meteors?  Or what they can tell us about Earth? Come to the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center to explore these mysterious space rocks through hands-on activities, computer-based interactives, meteorite specimens, scale models and an immersive audio-visual experience called Asteroid Encounter.  

The exhibition is divided into four areas: Origins, Asteroids, Comets and Impacts. It includes a variety of interactive, multimedia experiences. Visitors of all ages can take on the role of explorers, participate in real-world amateur astronomy activities and make comparisons between the risks of asteroid or comet impacts and more familiar natural disasters such as tsunamis, tornados, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  It also relates the stories of individual scientists whose work has furthered the study of asteroids and comets.

While asteroids and comets are popular subjects for movies like Armageddon and Deep Impact, they are playing their own starring roles in NASA research, and ongoing discoveries are a highlight of the exhibition. In 2001, NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft dramatically landed on the asteroid Eros. In 2005, NASA’s Deep Impact probe collided with Tempel 1, exploring beneath the comet’s surface. In 2007, NASA launched the Dawn spacecraft to the Main Asteroid Belt, orbiting the asteroid Vesta. Both NASA and numerous amateur astronomers will be closely monitoring the progress of two possible “Great Comets” in 2013, ISON and PANSTARRS.

Great Balls of Fire! Comets, Asteroids, Meteors includes exhibits, an education program, an outreach program to engage amateur astronomers, a public website ( and a program website ( Developed by The Space Science Institute’s National Center for Interactive Learning, with funding from the National Science Foundation and NASA, this new exhibition debuted on May 28, 2012. The exhibition has only traveled to the Science Museum of Virginia, Strategic Air & Space Museum in Nebraska, and Catawba Science Center in North Carolina. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is delighted to host its West Coast landing!


Great Balls of Fire! Comets, Asteroids, Meteors opens January 19, 2013, and remains through April 28, 2013. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is located at 1875 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101.  Gallery admission, which includes access to all eight exhibit galleries: Adults $11.75; Children/Seniors $9.75. The Fleet’s hours are Monday­­–Thursday 10AM–5PM, Friday & Saturday 10AM–7PM, and Sunday 10AM–6PM. For more information, call (619) 238-1233 or visit our website at

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About The Space Science Institute

The Space Science Institute’s National Center for Interactive Learning is a nonprofit organization that carries out world-class research in space and Earth science, together with innovative science education programs that inspire and deepen the public’s understanding of planet Earth and its place in the Universe. The institute's integrated research and education programs span planetary science, space physics, astrophysics, astrobiology, and Earth science.

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Press releases, backgrounders and photo caption sheets:

High-resolution photographs:

B-roll of Giant Dome Theater Shows & production footage of exhibits and galleries: Fleet Media DropBox:; sign in; email:; password: pr1973media; "RHF Public Relations."  

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BACKGROUND on Great Balls of Fire! Comets, Asteroids, Meteors 

Here are a few great articles on these amazing celestial visitors: Bright New Comet Promises Skywatching Treat

Alamogordo News: Two Possible Great Comets Coming in 2013

Daily Mail UK: Comet Brighter Than the Moon

Scientific American: Comet C/2012 S1 Coming Close with Spectacular Sky Show

io9: New Comet in 2013

AstroBob: PANSTARRS The Next Bright Comet

Smithsonian Science: New Comet May Be Visible to the Naked Eye in 2013 New Comet Due in 2013 Could Be Spectacular


The Big Idea:  Asteroids and comets are messengers from space that have had a significant effect on Earth’s history and are likely to influence the future as well.

Themes include: Exploration––Visitors of all ages can take on the role of explorers beyond the physical bounds of the exhibition itself by participating in real-world amateur astronomy activities.  Risk––Visitors make comparisons between the risk of asteroid or comet impacts and the risk of more familiar natural disasters such as tsunamis, tornados, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  Scientist Stories––The exhibition weaves in stories of individual scientists whose work has furthered the study of asteroids and comets. Scientists whose formative years included amateur explorer activities are also highlighted.

Take Away Messages

Comets and asteroids are part of the solar system and have very similar origins dating back to its formation.


Comets and asteroids reside in a few distinct regions of the solar system, with the regions that are home to comets being much further away from Earth (and the Sun) than the region in which asteroids are located.


Because they are relatively close to Earth, asteroids are made up of the same compositional elements as our planet.

The composition of comets includes ices that warm up upon approaching the Sun, causing out-gassing that sometimes generate highly visible tails.


Meteoroids, small pieces of asteroids or comets that either burn up in the atmosphere or, as meteorites, strike the surface of the planet, generally do very little damage.


Comets and asteroids pose a danger of colliding with planets, moons or each other only on very rare occasions, but with potentially devastating consequences.


Details on the Exhibition Components:

Area 1: Origins  This area presents the story of the formation and structure of the solar system. Planets and the “leftovers” of formation—asteroids and comets—orbit our massive Sun. The story embraces the way the asteroid belt, the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud formed and their location in dramatically different parts of the solar system. It underscores the ongoing dynamism of the system, creating a memorable impression of bodies in motion in the playground of space.

Origins Intro Panel.  In addition to planets and moons, the solar system contains smaller objects—asteroids and comets—that are usually found in specific regions. The panel introduces the idea that Earth is at risk of a future impact.

Asteroid Encounter. This is an immersive experience for visitors to engage in an interactive, role-playing activity. It includes visualization of the formation of the solar system with a focus on why asteroids and comets formed, where they can be found and how they periodically impact planets.

Area 2: Asteroids  This area sheds light on bodies in space frequently heard about but rarely understood. The story of asteroids, the largest rocks in space, will encompass their place in the solar system, in the asteroid belt orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter or and the Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) which cross the orbits of Earth and Mars. There are between 1 and 2 million asteroids in the main asteroid belt larger than 1 km in diameter, and millions of smaller ones. How We Know is an integral part of interpretation here, told through stories of historic asteroid discoveries and missions that have expanded our understanding of the various classes of asteroids, such as the Dawn spacecraft’s voyage to the main asteroid belt to visit Vesta and Ceres (now elevated to a dwarf planet).

Asteroids Intro Panel––an overview of asteroids, including a diagram of their primary locations in the solar  system. Visitors learn how close NEOs sometimes come to Earth.

Itokawa Asteroid Model & Video. A large replica of the Itokawa asteroid rotates with a model of the Hayabusa spacecraft on its surface.  An embedded video describes the Hayabusa mission to and from Itokawa and explains why this asteroid was chosen. This video also describes the Itokawa Asteroid, tells the story of the Hayabusa mission to it and shows the types of near Earth asteroids.

Blink Comparator Computer. Visitors can use the method astronomers employ to find asteroids and comets moving among the stars. They will align two photographs of the night sky and then “blink” the images to find the asteroid in the star field image. Through an arrangement with the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, visitors can also request that the center’s automated telescope take photographs that night and email them to the visitor the next day.

Light Curves Interactive & Computer. Using a light sensor pointed at a rotating model of an asteroid, visitors generate an asteroid “light curve” in real-time, employing a process similar to one used by scientists. Experimenting with the light sensor and the irregularly shaped and moving asteroid models shows how the light curve changes and demonstrates the difficulty of determining the shape and movement of an object from a few pixels of light. Visitors try to figure out which of four rotating virtual asteroid models would create the light curve graph  being shown on the computer screen.

Rubble Pile Simulation Computer. On a computer-based simulation, visitors attempt to save Earth from an impact by moving an asteroid with bombs and rockets while trying not to break it into pieces.

Area 3: Comets  Scientists do not know comets as well as asteroids. We know from the rate of outgassing of comets that at most a few percent of the surface layer is ice of any sort. What lies below the crust is largely unknown. As comets orbit closer to the Sun, their inner ices gradually warm and form immense tails that can grow to a length of 100 million miles or more. The story of our developing understanding of comets begins with sightings recorded throughout history and the interpretations humans attributed to them for thousands of years as harbingers of catastrophic events. Today’s comet hunters and missions into space are deepening our understanding of the origins and morphology of comets as products of a dynamic process of gravity acting on bodies in motion.

Comets Intro Panel––an overview of comets and key facts about them, with diagrams of the Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt.

Tempel 1 Comet Model & Video. Visitors can investigate a model of Tempel 1’s nucleus; its “coma” is shown in the accompanying graphics. The rail has  several content panels and an embedded video about the Deep Impact mission to Tempel 1. The video features an animation of a comet going from the Kuiper Belt to the inner solar system, showing how the coma and tail develop.

Comet Observations Story Panels. A display of art and artifacts tells the story of comet observations throughout human history that makes connections to modern science. Also included is a video of the Jupiter impacts and an engineering test model of a Whipple Shield from the Stardust mission.

Sizing Up Shooting Stars Display. Replica meteoroids of various sizes are placed on a graphic panel of the Leonid meteor shower. Visitors are asked to select one that’s the size of the average rock in a Leonids meteor event. Lifting a panel reveals the surprising  answer.

Amateur Astronomer Cards. Visitors can obtain cards from a custom printer that list upcoming events related to asteroid and  comet research, including meteor showers, local amateur astronomy meetings and NASA mission happenings.

Area 4: Impacts and Risk This area presents three major impact stories from different periods of history:  the 65 million year old Chicxulub crater thought to be responsible for killing most of the planet’s species including the dinosaurs; the 50,000 year old Barringer Meteor Crater made by a nickel-iron meteorite roughly 50–60 meters across; and the 1908 Tunguska Event, the explosion of a small asteroid about 5 miles—roughly the cruising altitude of a modern jet airplane—above the surface of Siberia. Anchored by the stories of these three earth-shaking (literally!) events, this area of the exhibition interprets the energy of impacts and the concept that their incredible speed is what makes them so destructive for their size. Visitors can also explore risk and low probability/high consequence events, making comparisons between the risk of asteroid or comet impacts and the risk of more familiar natural disasters such as tsunamis, tornados, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Impacts Intro Panel––an overview of impact sites around the world.

Barringer Crater Model & Computer. A model of the Barringer crater with rail graphics and a computer display combine to tell the story of how Gene Shoemaker proved that an object from space (and not a volcano) caused the crater. Visitors can view a slow-motion simulation of the impact that created Barringer crater and use a custom interface from Google Earth to view the top 30 craters in the world.

What If It Hit My Town? Computer. Visitors select the size of an asteroid or comet and then enter the zip code of a place for the impact. The results appear on a Google Maps display. A second screen shows an animation of the impact with cross-sectional simulations.

Water Impact Test. This mechanical device allows visitors to shoot a small projectile into water. A high-speed camera captures the impacts, which can then be played back in slow motion, demonstrating how even small objects can release a lot of energy on impact.

Projectile Tests Video. Visitors can access video of high-speed projectile tests conducted by scientists. Nearby are an artifact target and projectile with text comparing the speed of the test projectiles to that of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.

Is It a Rock or a Meteorite? Visitors examine a collection of rocks and use a series of tests (magnetism, color, density/relative weight) to determine which one is a meteorite. They can also touch a 22-pound metallic meteorite that impacted Earth 4,500 years ago, in what is now Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“Messengers From Space” Display Case. Visitors use a magnifying glass to examine a collection of real meteorites, Libyan glass, microtectites, shocked quartz and two meteorite cross-sections. Each specimen is linked to a specific Earth crater and time period.

Science Fact or Science Fiction Computer. Visitors watch clips from a variety of movies and television shows and then answer the question, “Did they get the science right, partially right or wrong?” Their answers are compared to those of scientists and previous visitors.

What Are the Odds? Quiz and feedback. Using a fast-paced quiz show format, one or two visitors can take a quiz about the risk of various events happening, including an asteroid or comet impact.

Comparing Craters––shows impact craters throughout the solar system.


Project Development

The Space Science Institute’s National Center for Interactive Learning, with funding from the National Science Foundation and NASA, developed a national traveling exhibition program called Great Balls of Fire: Comets, Asteroids, and Meteors. The project includes two exhibitions (3,000 sq. ft. and 750 sq. ft.), an education program for museum educators and docents, an outreach program to engage amateur astronomers, a public website ( and a programmatic website ( for host venues. Project partners include the Catawba Science Center, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the Institute for Learning Innovation, the Association of Science-Technology Centers and the NASA Dawn and WISE Missions.

Suzy Gurton of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) led development of the project’s Outreach Program,  designing a Space Rocks ToolKit that has been given to more than 130 amateur astronomy organizations across the country, impacting more than 35,000 visitors.

Erin Graves of the Catawba Science Center developed the project’s Education Program,  including materials for museum docents and educators that can be used as floor activities within the exhibit or as stand-alone activities. The Catawba Science Center also hosted one of the three Student Advisor Teams (SATs), along with the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science and the Sunset Middle School in Longmont, Colorado. These three teams helped develop exhibit content, evaluate prototypes, develop and test activities for a demonstration cart that travels with the exhibition and test resources for teachers. Two members from the Catawba team assisted with the educator and docent workshops that were conducted at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Wendy Hancock of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) led the Professional Development Program, including an online ASTC Connect Session for educators entitled “Expanding Roles for Youth in Informal Learning Experiences.”