Universe Guide

What are Comet, the Universe's Dirty Snowballs?

Comet Facts

Comet Introduction

Comets were once described by Fred Whipple as nothing more than a dirty snowball that travels through space. Fred Whipple has a point as comets consist mainly of ice and dust. The make-up of a comet is theorised as being dust and blocks of ice held together by the cold.

Given a comet's size and the great distances they travel, it is not easy to work out their journey path, some comets such as Halley, the path is known, it travels out past Uranus before returning to the Sun. They have been seen throughout history and probably the most famous appearance of a comet that has been recorded is Halley Comet which appeared at the time of the Battle of Hastings (1066). Halley's Comet appears on the Bayeaux Tapestry which chronicles the battle.

The Bayeux Tapestry which chronicled the Battle of Hastings showing Halleys Comet.

Life came from Comets Theory


A theory has been put forward that life on Earth hitch-hiked on the back of a comet due to its make-up. This has been neither proved nor disproved as far as I know. Recently due to the outbreak of the SARS virus, scientists are thinking about whether the so-called Emerging Diseases may have come from Comets as they pass-by. It is an interesting theory which could be worth looking into.

Water on Earth came from Comets

In March 2004, the European Space Agency (E.S.A.) launched the Rosetta space probe on a ten year mission to rendezvous with P67/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and land a space probe called Philae on the surface. On the 10th December, it was announced that results back from the mission and the experiments that it had carried out, water on Earth had not originated from comets. However it is only one comet that they've been looking at and more research is needed. Some scientists are now turning their attention to asteroids which they believe could contain water. Ref: B.B.C.

Although P67 was a disappointment in that it didn't find conclusive proof that water came from comets. According to Herschel space telescope, Comet Hartley 2 has the right kind of water that can be found on our planet. The reference for that is the same as the link at the end of the last paragraph. Hartley-2 and P67 are both comets that originate from the Kuiper Belt.

What is a Comet made of?

Comet Nucleus, the Central Core of a Comet

As mentioned before, the centre of a comet which is found at the head of a comet is a object made from ice and water, methane and other gasses. If you had been hoping for something a bit more exciting then you're a bit disappointed. The first picture below shows how a comet with a tail looks like as it approaches the Sun and the tail appears. The second picture is of Comet P67/Churyumov which when Rosetta examined it, it hadn't just started to burn and create a tail yet. Over time, the comet will eventually boil away into nothing or just a rock. There could be a rock centre but it has not yet been proved or disproved. Space

How is a Comet formed?

Comets are formed when dust and ice particles combine together under the influence of gravity. Comets would have formed around the time of the creation of the solar system. They would be formed far from the influence of the Sun's temperatures and rays but then be pulled in. Depending on the path, it may be pulled into a short term journey such as Encke's comet or have a long journey such as Halley's Comet or Comet West.

When a comet nears the star, it will burn away in a tail. There's nothing to say on its journey, it doesn't pick up and grow, replenishing more or less than what it had before it approached the star. For a visualisation of how Comets are formed, the page at N.A.S.A. is highly recommended.

Comet's Tail

A Comet will only have a tail when it approaches the Sun. The tail is caused because of the heat of the Sun boiling the comet away. A comet will eventually disappear as it has been boiled away. Halley's Comet has quite a few orbits to go before it boils away.

A Comet's tail will leave behind dust particles which hit our atmosphere and burn up as meteors. Comet dust is what our Earth is hit by when a Meteor Shower occurs. For example, the Orionids is associated with Halley's Comet tail dust. Orionids are the result of the Comet approaching the Sun and the Eta Aquariids of when the comet finished going round the Sun and is on its way out.

It should be pointed out that not all meteor showers are the result of a comet's tail, the Geminids is believed to be from the asteroid Phaethon. The Geminids are one of the major annual meteor showers, sometimes producing a colourful display.

A Comet is not a shooting star as a comet doesn't hit our atmosphere, instead, it will pass by us. The left overs can end up as shooting stars as they collide with our atmosphere.

Artists Impression of Comet Halley Nucleus

Picture of Comet P67/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Comets Orbital Paths Round the Sun

Comets take a highly elliptical path whereas planets are more circular. The picture below shows the path of Halleys Comet around the Sun. The pictures not drawn to scale so please don't complain, I already know. Also I've missed out the inner planets for picture clarity.

The Path that Halley's comet will take round the Sun from 1986 till the next time it comes round in 2061.

Below is the orbital path of Encke's Comet, which takes 3.3 years to orbit the Sun. It was drawn using N.A.S.A. Orbital Diagrammer which is a free on-line java program that will allow you to create maps of asteroid and some comet orbits. You'll need an old browser as a lot of browsers are dropping support for Java, the version I used is Internet Explorer 11, everything else had disabled it including Edge. The Java app will draw orbits to size which is why for Halley, I had drew it to fit everything in.

Path of Comet Encke round the Sun using N.A.S.A. orbit diagrammer.

A Comet's orbital shape round a star is know as Eccentricity, a comet with an Eccentricity of 0 will have a near circular shape path. A higher number will be more elliptical, more oval shaped.

Comet Halley complete with Tail as it approaches the Sun.

Oort Cloud, Where Comets come from?

There is a theory that there is an encompassing cloud of comets that surrounds our solar system at a distance of one light year, it is called the oort cloud. The comets are believed to be in a station or orbiting position but something causes these comets to head towards the Earth. There is a theory around a Rogue Star called Nemesis that when it comes close to us, it pushes comets to head towards us. Nemesis is believed to be a brown dwarf star which is why its not been detected as they are hard to spot.

Comets Term (Short and Long)

There are two main times of comet term, short term and long term. If we take short term first, they can be broken again into two groups, Jupiter Comets where the term is less than 20 years, for example, Encke's Comet. The second short term comets are called Halleys after Halley Comet where their term can be from 20 years up to 200 years. Short term comets are believed to have originated in the Kuiper Belt.

Long term comets are anything where their orbit is greater than 200 years so that includes comets that are thought to originate from the Oort Cloud or beyond. Comet Hyakutake is a long term comet which will never see in our lifetimes unless of course this page is being read in 41,999 A.D. or there about.

Both long and short term comets are thought to have the same chemical composition. It is believed that the Oort Cloud comets were created within our solar system, at a distance closer to the Sun than the Kuiper Belt. The Oort Cloud comets are believed to have been ejected from our solar system, eventually forming a cloud which we know as the Oort Cloud. Ref: Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche

How are Comets Named?

The main convention is that the comet is named after the first person to spot it or make a detailed study of it. Halley's Comet, probably the most famous comet there is was named after Sir Edmund Halley who in 1682 predicted its return, 76 years later. Since then, the convention has roughly struck. The Comet of 1066 was not given a name until of course, Halley predicted its return.

Other older comets were just known as the Great Comet such as the Great Comet of 1680. Later comets were also given Great Comet names such as the comet of 1882 and 1680, presumably because the comets return was not predicted and proven to be right. If more than one comet appeared in a year, the month would be added to the name such as the 'Great January Comet of 1910'. In addition to a name, it is given a number and a letter. For example, Halley is 1P/Halley. The number signifies its order of being registered, Halley has the title of number 1. The letter doesn't always have to be a P.

Death of a Comet

There are two ways in which a Comet can cease to exist. The first way is when a comet has been boiled away after a number of orbits round the Sun. It has been calculated by N.A.S.A. that Halleys Comet still has another 1,000 trips left to do around the Sun. Its been doing it for about the last 16,000 years so its a safe bet it will continue to for thousands of years to come.

A Comet could stray too close to a planet or a star and be destroyed. Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet was discovered in 1993 and scientists witnessed it destruction at the hands of Jupiter. Jupiter caused the comet to break up and enter its atmosphere in the following year. N.A.S.A.

Comets orbiting other Stars

Comets around other stars also known as ExoComet have been known about since 1987 when the first was discovered using Spectroscopy, the studying of the light and radiation. The comet was discovered orbiting Beta Pictoris. Since then, other exocomets have been found round other stars.

The difference between Comets and Asteroids

The main difference is what makes up the two objects, comets are made up of dust and ice whereas asteroids are rocks and metals. Comets when they get close to the Sun will burn away and produce a tail. Comets can have very long journeys round our Sun, sometimes never to be seen again in our lifetime whereas asteroids are in the asteroid or kuiper belts.

Comet Encke3.32020-06-26
Comet d--Arrest6.512021-09-18
Comet Tempel 15.512005-07-07
Comet Borrelly6.862022-03-09
Comet Giacobini-Zinner6.522018-09-10
Comet Grigg-Skjellerup5.092018-10-02
Comet Crommelin27.892011-07-28
Comet Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova5.292016-12-30
Comet Wirtanen5.462018-12-13
Comet Tempel-Tuttle32.922031-05-21
Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko6.572021-10-27
Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 35.362006-06-02
Comet Kohoutek6.241973-12-28
Comet West-Kohoutek-Ikemura6.462019-10-26
Comet Wild 26.392003-09-25
Comet Chiron50.71996-02-27
Comet Wilson-Harrington4.292018-05-24
Comet Hale-Bopp40001997-03-31
Comet Hyakutake400001996-05-01
Comet Swift-Tuttle133.281992-11-29
Comet C / 1964 N1 Ikeya3911964-8-1
Comet C / 1861 G1 Thatcher4151861-6-03
Comet 209P/Linear5.092019-06-13
Halley's Comet76.11986-01-09
Comet 2I/Borisov

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