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Comets

People were very superstitious in ancient times. They


believed that fuzzy, white streaks that sometimes
appeared in the night sky meant an important event
was about to happen. They believed that these
comets were omens (signs) that bad things were
about to happen. Astronomers now know that a
comet is a ball of ice, rock, and dust. A comet is like
a dirty snowball speeding though space.

WHAT ARE COMETS?


Astronomers in the 1500s and 1600s began to study
comets. They found that comets are bodies in space, not
part of the atmosphere.

A British astronomer named Edmond Halley discovered


that comets actually orbit the Sun. They return again and
again, but they go so far from the Sun that their returns
take a long time. He studied a comet that showed up in
1682. He proposed that it was the same comet that had
appeared in 1607 and 1531. Halley predicted that the
comet would return again around 1758. The comet
returned as he had said it would. The comet came to be
known as Halley’s Comet. The orbit of Halley’s Comet
takes it close to the Sun about every 76 years. The last
time Halley’s Comet came near the Sun was in 1986.

Astronomers now study comets with telescopes and


spacecraft. They are learning more about what comets are
made of, where they come from, and how they move in
space.

WHAT DOES A COMET LOOK LIKE?


A comet looks like a fuzzy, white ball with one or more fat,
white tails trailing behind it. A comet has three main parts.
It has a center made of ice and rock. A hazy cloud of gas
called the coma surrounds the center. A comet can also
have one or more tails that trail behind it.

Comets only have tails when they get near the Sun. When
a comet comes near the Sun, heat makes some of the ice
turn to gas. The comet gets very bright. This gas streams
away and carries dust with it, making one or more tails.
The tails always point away from the Sun.

HOW DO COMETS TRAVEL IN SPACE?


Comets orbit the Sun just as the planets do. That is why
astronomers see the same comet return over and over
again. But comets have huge oval-shaped orbits. They
swing far out to the edge of the solar system.

It takes Earth 365 days to go around the Sun. The orbits


of some comets are so big that it takes them hundreds of
years to go around the Sun once.

WHERE DO COMETS COME FROM?


Comets come from places in the outer solar system called
the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. The Kuiper Belt and
the Oort Cloud are made up of chunks of ice and rock.
Comets that orbit the Sun in less than 200 years come
from the Kuiper Belt. The Kuiper Belt is just beyond the
planet Neptune. Comets that take longer than 200 years
to go around the Sun come from the Oort Cloud. The Oort
Cloud is far out at the edge of the solar system, beyond
the planet Pluto.

Astronomers think that comets formed soon after the solar


system began about 5 billion years ago. The solar system
formed from a big cloud of gas and dust. The Sun formed
in the center of the cloud. Gas and dust farther out
clumped together to make the planets. Comets may have
formed from leftover gas and dust at the edge of the solar
system where it is very cold.

COULD A COMET HIT EARTH?


We know that comets can hit planets. In 1994, telescopes
and spacecraft watched Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crash
into the planet Jupiter. The crash sent up fireballs that
were bigger than Earth!

Some scientists think that comets hit Earth long ago. A


comet or asteroid (space rock) crashing into Earth 65
million years ago may have killed off the dinosaurs. The
crash would have sent up a huge cloud of dust. The dust
could have blocked out the Sun’s light. Earth would have
become cold and dark enough to kill off the plants that
dinosaurs ate.

On a dark, clear night you can sometimes see streaks of


light shooting across the sky. Some of these shooting
stars are bits left behind by comets. They give off light as
they burn up while falling through the atmosphere. So in a
way, comets are constantly falling on Earth!
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