Comet — A comet is a small body from the outer reaches of the solar system similar to an asteroid but composed of ice. Often described as “dirty snowballs,” they are composed largely of carbon dioxide ice, methane ice, and water ice with a mixture of dust and small stony aggregates mixed in.
Comets are thought to be small pieces of debris left over from the formation of the solar system, representing a sample of the original composition of the nebula that condensed to form the Sun and all of its planets.
Comets are sometimes perturbed from their distant orbits, falling into extremely elliptical orbits that bring them very close to the the Sun. When a comet approaches the inner solar system, the warmth from the sun causes its outer layers of ice to evaporate. The streams of dust and gas this releases form a huge tenouous atmosphere around the comet called the coma, and the force exerted on the coma by the sun’s radiation pressure and solar wind cause an enormous tail to form pointing directly away from the sun.
Often the dust and gas each form their own distinct tail, pointed in slightly different directions due to the dust being left behind in the comet’s orbit (so it may often be a curved tail) and the ion tail (gas) always points directly away from the sun since gas is more strongly affected by the solar wind than dust is. The solid body of the comet itself is referred to as the nucleus.
Both coma and tail are spectacularly illuminated by the Sun and are often visible from the Earth when a comet passes through the inner solar system, the dust reflecting sunlight directly and the gases glowing due to ionization. Most comets are too faint to be visible without the aid of a telescope. A few each decade become bright enough to be visible with the naked eye.
Before the invention of the telescope, comets seemed to appear out of nowhere in the sky and gradually vanish out of sight. They were usually considered bad omens of deaths of kings or noble men, or coming catastrophes. From ancient sources, such as Chinese oracle bones, it is known that their appearance have been noticed by humans for millennia.
Comets are classified according to their orbital periods. Short-period comets are thought to originate in the Kuiper belt, whereas the source of long-period comets is thought to be the Ort cloud. A variety of mechanisms have been proposed to explain why comets get perturbed into highly elliptical orbits, including the Sun’s hypothetical companion star Nemesis, an unknown Planet X, and close approaches to other stars as the Sun follows its orbit through the Milky Way Galaxy.
Ironically, cometary nuclei are among the blackest objects known to exist in the solar system. The Giotto probe found that Comet Halley’s nucleus reflects approximately 4% of the light that falls on it, and Deep Space 1 discovered that Comet Borrelly’s surface reflects only 2.4% to 3% of the light that falls on it; by comparison, asphalt reflects 7% of the light that falls on it. It is thought that complex organic compounds are the dark surface material.
Solar heating drives off volatile compounds leaving behind heavy long-chain organics that tend to be very dark, like tar or crude oil. The very darkness of cometary surfaces allows them to absorb the heat necessary to drive their spectacularly bright outgassing.
History of comet study
It was not settled whether comets are atmospheric phenomena or interplanetary objects until the 16th century, when Tycho Brahe measured that they must be outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. In the 17th century, Edmond Halley used the theory of gravitation, recently developed by Isaac Newton, to try to calculate the orbits of comets. He then found that one of them periodically came back to the vicinity of the sun every 76-77th year. Soon this comet became known as Comet Halley, and from ancient sources it is known to have been observed by humans at least since 66 BC.
The second comet to be discovered to have a periodic orbit was Comet Encke, in 1821. Like Halley’s comet, it is named after the calculator, the German mathematician and physicist Johann Franz Encke, that found it to be a periodic comet. Usually, comets get their names after their discoverer(s). Encke’s comet has the shortest period of any comet, only 3.3 years and, because of this, more recorded appearances than any other comet. It was also the first comet whose orbit was noticed to be influenced by non-gravitional forces.
Although it is now usually too faint to be visible with the naked eye, it may have been a bright comet a few thousand years ago before most of its surface ice had evaporated. So far, it is not known to have been observed before 1786. Maybe an improved analysis of its orbit before that will find that it actually is noted in ancient sources. However, if it is a very old comet then its only naked eye visibility would have been many thousands of years ago. Even longer if it was originally a large comet, such as Comet Hale-Bopp. If it was even larger, a Centaur for instance, it would take hundreds of thousands of years to wear out.
The actual nature of comets were speculated over for centuries. In the early 19th century another German mathematician, Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel, was on the right track. He created a theory about the brightness of the comets coming from the evaporation from a solid object and that the non-gravitational forces of comet Encke were caused by the jet forces created as the material evaporated from the surface of the object.
His idea was forgotten for more than 100 years, before Fred Lawrence Whipple independently proposed the same idea in 1950. It soon became the accepted comet model and was confirmed when an armada of spacecraft (including the European Space Agency’s Giotto probe and the Soviet Union’s Vega 1 and Vega 2) flew through the coma of Halley’s comet in 1986 to photograph the nucleus and observed the jets of evaporating material. The American probe Deep Space 1 flew past the nucleus of Comet Borrelly on September 21 2001 and confirmed that the characteristics of Comet Halley are common in other comets as well.
The Stardust spacecraft was launched in February 1999, and in January 2004 it will meet Comet Wild 2 and study it. Sample material will be returned to Earth with a capsule in 2006.