Comets


Comets: You’ve probably heard of Halley’s comet. This Comet has intrigued people for thousands of years, yet what you may not know is that at any given time there are an untold number of comets in the sky.

Comets actually spend the majority of their time in a dormant state without any kind of tail. These small objects made up of rock and ice all orbit the Sun, but at varying distances. Short period comets are closer to the Sun and are active more often. Long period comets originate in a place past Neptune called the Oort cloud. These comets have orbits ranging in the hundreds to thousands of years and are often unpredictable in their brightness or arrivals to the inner solar system. This is because there are thousands and thousands of these comets and many of them have not even been discovered by the time they reach our part of the solar system. In addition to this, these comets could surprise us and become breathtakingly bright. For example, in the late 90’s comet Hale-Bopp became extremely prominent in the sky. It was previously undiscovered, and amazed people around the world. It won’t return until the year 4,380.

The comet Hale-Bopp captured the attention of millions when it traveled in from the Oort Cloud to pass near the Earth before returning to its distant home.
Comet Hale-Bopp. Image Credit: J.C. Casado
When comets near the sun, its light actually pushes dust particles off of it into the opposite direction of the Sun. In addition to dust tails, comets also have ion tails. These tails are generated when ultraviolet light hits the comet and creates ions of its particles. These ions glow, creating a tail. Most comets aren’t seen simply because they aren’t bright enough. However, with large enough telescopes these comets can be revealed. When a comet becomes prominent enough for an amateur astronomer to easily see it, we’ll certainly let you know!

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