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Solar System

Comet

Greek words, formation of Earth, origin, prehistoric times, comets

Deeper web pages:

>  Periods And Orbits of Comets

>  Composition and Origin of Comets

>  Cometary Activity and Tails

>  Comet Collisions in Earth History

>  Observation and Exploration of Comets

>  Naming Comets

Comet, small icy body in space that sheds gas and dust. Like rocky asteroids, icy comets are ancient objects left over from the formation of the solar system about 4.6 billion years ago. Some comets can be seen from Earth with the unaided eye.

Comets typically have highly elliptical (oval-shaped), off-center orbits that swing near the Sun. When a comet is heated by the Sun, some of the ice on the comet’s surface turns into gas directly without melting. The gas and dust freed from the ice can create a cloud (coma) around the body (nucleus) of the comet. More gas and dust erupt from cracks in the comet’s dark crust. High-energy charged particles emitted by the Sun, called the solar wind, can carry the gas and dust away from the comet as a long tail that streams into space. Gas in the tail becomes ionized and glows as bluish plasma, while dust in the tail is lit by sunlight and looks yellowish. This distinctive visible tail is the origin of the word comet, which comes from Greek words meaning “long-haired star.”

Humans have observed comets since prehistoric times. Comets were long regarded as supernatural warnings of calamity or signs of important events. Astronomers and planetary scientists now study comets for clues to the chemical makeup and early history of the solar system, since comets have been in the deep-freeze of outer space for billions of years. Materials in comets may have played a major role in the formation of Earth and the origin of life. Catastrophic impacts by comets may also have affected the history of life on Earth, and they still pose a threat to humans.

Contributors

Pasachoff, Jay. M.m A.B., A.M., Ph.D.

Field Memorial Professor of Astromony and Director of the Hopkins Observatory, Williams College. Author of "Astronomy: From the Earth to the Universe, 6th ed."; "Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, 4th ed."; "Fire in the Sky"; and "Nearest Star: The Exciting Science of Our Sun".



Article key phrases:

Greek words, formation of Earth, origin, prehistoric times, comets, long tail, solar system, gas, solar wind, chemical makeup, nucleus, Astronomers, origin of life, coma, cracks, sunlight, early history, particles, formation, dust, Humans, history of life, cloud, Earth, clues, streams, threat, ice, surface, space, body, Materials, years

 
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