A comet is an icy small Solar System body that, when passing close to the Sun, warms and begins to release gases, a process called outgassing. This produces a visible atmosphere or coma, and sometimes also a tail. These phenomena are due to the effects of solar radiation and the solar wind acting upon the nucleus of the comet.
Comet nuclei range from a few hundred metres to tens of kilometres across and are composed of loose collections of ice, dust, and small rocky particles. The coma may be up to 15 times the Earth’s diameter, while the tail may stretch one astronomical unit.
If sufficiently bright, a comet may be seen from the Earth without the aid of a telescope and may subtend an arc of 30° (60 Moons) across the sky. Comets have been observed and recorded since ancient times by many cultures.
Comets usually have highly eccentric elliptical orbits, and they have a wide range of orbital periods, ranging from several years to potentially several millions of years. Short-period comets originate in the Kuiper belt or its associated scattered disc, which lie beyond the orbit of Neptune.
Long-period comets are thought to originate in the Oort cloud, a spherical cloud of icy bodies extending from outside the Kuiper belt to halfway to the nearest star. Long-period comets are set in motion towards the Sun from the Oort cloud by gravitational perturbations caused by passing stars and the galactic tide. Hyperbolic comets may pass once through the inner Solar System before being flung to interstellar space. The appearance of a comet is called an apparition.
Comets are distinguished from asteroids by the presence of an extended, gravitationally unbound atmosphere surrounding their central nucleus. This atmosphere has parts termed the coma (the central part immediately surrounding the nucleus) and the tail (a typically linear section consisting of dust or gas blown out from the coma by the Sun’s light pressure or outstreaming solar wind plasma). However, extinct comets that have passed close to the Sun many times have lost nearly all of their volatile ices and dust and may come to resemble small asteroids. Asteroids are thought to have a different origin from comets, having formed inside the orbit of Jupiter rather than in the outer Solar System. The discovery of main-belt comets and active centaur minor planets has blurred the distinction between asteroids and comets.
Exocomets beyond the Solar System have also been detected and may be common in the Milky Way. The first exocomet system detected was around Beta Pictoris, a very young A-type main-sequence star, in 1987.A total of 10 such exocomet systems have been identified as of 2013, using the absorption spectrum caused by the large clouds of gas emitted by comets when passing close to their star.
Connection to meteor showers
As a result of outgassing, comets leave in their wake a trail of solid debris too large to be swept away by radiation pressure and the solar wind. If the Earth’s orbit sends it though that debris, there are likely to be meteor showers as Earth passes through. The Perseid meteor shower, for example, occurs every year between 9 and 13 August, when Earth passes through the orbit of Comet Swift–Tuttle. Halley’s Comet is the source of the Orionid shower in October
Comets and impact on life
Many comets and asteroids collided with Earth in its early stages. Many scientists think that comets bombarding the young Earth about 4 billion years ago brought the vast quantities of water that now fill the Earth’s oceans, or at least a significant portion of it. Others have cast doubt on this idea. The detection of organic molecules, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, in significant quantities in comets has led to speculation that comets or meteorites may have brought the precursors of life—or even life itself—to Earth.
Breakup and collisions
The nucleus of some comets may be fragile, a conclusion supported by the observation of comets splitting apart. A significant cometary disruption was that of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9, which was discovered in 1993. A close encounter in July 1992 had broken it into pieces, and over a period of six days in July 1994, these pieces fell into Jupiter’s atmosphere—the first time astronomers had observed a collision between two objects in the Solar System. Other splitting comets include 3D/Biela in 1846 and 73P/Schwassmann–Wachmann from 1995 to 2006. Greek historian Ephorus reported that a comet split apart as far back as the winter of 372–373 BC. Comets are suspected of splitting due to thermal stress, internal gas pressure, or impact.
The names given to comets have followed several different conventions over the past two centuries. Prior to the early 20th century, most comets were simply referred to by the year when they appeared, sometimes with additional adjectives for particularly bright comets; thus, the “Great Comet of 1680”, the “Great Comet of 1882”, and the “Great January Comet of 1910”.
After Edmund Halley demonstrated that the comets of 1531, 1607, and 1682 were the same body and successfully predicted its return in 1759 by calculating its orbit, that comet became known as Halley’s Comet. Similarly, the second and third known periodic comets, Encke’s Comet and Biela’s Comet,were named after the astronomers who calculated their orbits rather than their original discoverers. Later, periodic comets were usually named after their discoverers, but comets that had appeared only once continued to be referred to by the year of their appearance.
In the early 20th century, the convention of naming comets after their discoverers became common, and this remains so today. A comet can be named after its discoverers, or an instrument or program that helped to find it.
- Here is a summary of previous and planned missions to comets
- Images: Simon Addis, ESA/Rosetta, ESO, NASA, ESA, Damian Peach, Angel Montana
Comet ISON approaching the Sun observed by the spacecraft STEREO. 20 to Nov. 25, 2013.