Comets have fascinated mankind since humans first noticed the distinctive tail streaking across the night sky. We mark the date that we saw a comet that comes around only once a century or even once in four centuries and we remember the sight for the rest of our lives. Astronomers find comets fascinating, too. Comets are remarkable pieces of our universe's past, and they tell us a great deal about how the universe was formed.
What is a Comet?
Comets are small members of the solar system, usually a few miles or kilometers in diameter. They have been described as "dirty snowballs" by astronomer Fred Whipple and are thought to be made of:
· ice (water, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide)
· some carbon-containing (organic) materials (e.g., tar)
· a rocky center (some comets)
Comets are thought to be made from the earliest materials of the solar system. When the sun first formed, it blew lighter material (gases, dust) out into space. Some of this material (mainly gas) condensed to form the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) and some remains in orbit far from the sun in two areas:
· Oort Cloud - a sphere about 50,000 AUs from the sun; named after the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort who proposed it
· Kuiper Belt - an area within the plane of the solar system outside the orbit of Pluto
The Path of a Comet
Comets are thought to orbit the sun in either the Oort cloud or Kuiper belt. When another star passes by the solar system, its gravity pushes the Oort cloud and/or Kuiper belt and causes comets to descend toward the sun in a highly elliptical orbit with the sun at one focus of the ellipse. Comets can have short period orbits (less than 200 years such as Halley's comet) or long period orbits (greater than 200 years such as comet Hale-Bopp).
Parts of a Comet
As a comet approaches the sun, it warms up. During this warming, you can observe several distinct parts:
· hydrogen envelope
· dust tail
· ion tail
The nucleus is the main, solid part of the comet. The nucleus is usually 1 to 10 kilometers in diameter, but can be as big as 100 kilometers. It can be composed of rock.
The coma is a halo of evaporated gas (water vapor, ammonia, carbon dioxide) and dust that surrounds the nucleus. The coma is made as the comet warms up and is often 1,000 times larger than the nucleus. It can even become as big as Jupiter or Saturn (100,000 kilometers). The coma and nucleus together form the head of the comet.
Surrounding the coma is an invisible layer of hydrogen called the hydrogen envelope; the hydrogen may come from water molecules. It usually has an irregular shape because it is distorted by the solar wind. The hydrogen envelope gets bigger as the comet approaches the sun.
Comets often have a second tail called an ion tail (also called the plasma or gas tail). The ion tail is made of electrically charged gas molecules (carbon dioxide, nitrogen, water) that are pushed away from the nucleus by the solar wind. Sometimes, the gas tail disappears and later reappears when the comet crosses a boundary where direction of the sun's magnetic field is reversed
As comets pass through the inner solar system, they can be broken into pieces by Jupiter's gravity. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was broken into 20 pieces, each of which collided with Jupiter in one of the most spectacular examples of interplanetary impacts in recorded history.
Recently, comet LINEAR was also broken into fragments by the sun's gravity as it passed the sun.
Many comets are actually discovered by amateur astronomers. To look for comets, here are things to keep in mind:
· Go to a place where there are few lights.
· Learn what a comet looks like (observe as many comets as you can) and what a comet does not look like (observe other deep sky objects because they also appear as small fuzzy objects).
· Use binoculars or a telescope (low magnification, 20-40x).
· Look toward the east about 30 minutes before sunrise or to the west about 20 minutes after sunset because comets are often spotted by their tails.
· Sweep the sky slowly near the horizon.