The Exhibits » Exhibit Areas
About the Different Areas in the Exhibits

About the Exhibit

With Great Balls of Fire: Comets, Asteroids, Meteors, SSI’s National Center for Interactive Learning will bring recent discoveries and cutting-edge planetary science to museums and science centers around the country. The 3,500 square-foot exhibition is divided into four areas: Origins, Asteroids, Comets, and Impacts. It will include a variety of interactive, multimedia experiences, ranging from straightforward computer-based activities to a larger scale, “pod” where visitors play the role of explorers-in-training” – an important theme that threads throughout the exhibit. Great Balls of Fire is designed by Jeff Kennedy Associates. Evaluation is conducted by the Institute for Learning Innovation. Support comes from the National Science Foundation and NASA. A smaller exhibit is also available for rent (1500 sq. ft.).

Exhibit Areas Include

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.

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).

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.

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. Area 4 will also focus on 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.


Great Balls of Fire Large Exhibit Flyer (pdf)

Great Balls of Fire Large Exhibit Floorplan (pdf)

Great Balls of Fire Large Exhibit Component Descriptions (pdf)

Great Balls of Fire Small Exhibit Flyer (pdf)

Great Balls of Fire Small Exhibit Floorplan (pdf)

Great Balls of Fire Small Exhibit Component Descriptions (pdf)

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