Advertisement.

EnchantedLearning.com is a user-supported site.
As a bonus, site members have access to a banner-ad-free version of the site, with print-friendly pages.
Click here to learn more.

ad
(Already a member? Click here.)

Our subscribers' grade-level estimate for this page: 4th
Table of Contents Enchanted Learning
All About Astronomy
Site Index
Our Solar System Stars Glossary Printables, Worksheets, and Activities
The Sun The Planets The Moon Asteroids Kuiper Belt Comets Meteors Astronomers

Comets
Introduction to Comets Crossing a Comet's Orbit: Meteor Showers Comet Origins Major Comets Acitvities,
Web Links

Introduction to Comets

A comet is a small, icy celestial body that orbits around the sun. It is made up of a nucleus (solid, frozen ice, gas and dust), a gaseous coma (water vapor, CO2, and other gases) and a long tail (made of dust and ionized gases). The tail develops when the comet is near the Sun. Its long ion tail of always points away from the sun, because of the force of the solar wind. The tail can be up to 250 million km long, and is most of what we see. Comets are only visible when they're near the sun in their highly eccentric orbits.

PARTS OF A COMET
Nucleus: The nucleus is the frozen center of a comet's head. It is composed of ice, gas, and dust. The nucleus contains most of the comet's mass but is very small (about 1 to 10 km across - or more).

Coma: The coma is the roughly spherical blob of gas that surrounds the nucleus of a comet; it is about a million km across. The coma is comprised of water vapor, carbon dioxide gas, ammonia, dust, and neutral gases that have sublimed from the solid nucleus. The coma and the nucleus form the head of a comet.

Ion Tail: A tail of charged gases (ions) always faces away from the sun because the solar wind (ions streaming from the sun at high velocities) pushes it away (it is also called the plasma tail). When the comet is approaching the Sun, the ion tail trails the comet: when the comet is leaving of the Sun, the ion tail leads. The tail fades as the comet moves far from the Sun. The ion tail can be well over 100 million km long.

Dust Tail: The dust tail is a long, wide tailcomposed of microscopic dust particles that are buffeted by photons emitted from the Sun; this tail curves slightly due to the comet's motion. The tail fades as the comet moves far from the Sun. Hydrogen Envelope: Hydrogen gas surrounds the coma of the comet and trails along for millions of miles (it is usually between the ion tail and the dust tail). The hydrogen envelope is about 10 million km across at the nucleus of the comet and about 100 million km long. It is bigger when the comet is near the Sun.

A COMET'S ORBIT
Comets orbit the Sun in highly elliptical orbits. Their velocity increases greatly when they are near the Sun and slows down at the far reaches of the orbit. Since the comet is light only when it is near the Sun (and is it vaporizing), comets are dark (virtually invisible) throughout most of their orbit. The solar wind pushes the tail away from the Sun.

Some comets crash into the Sun or get so close that they burn up; these comets are called sungrazers.

COMET EXPLORATION
NASA's Stardust Mission will visit the Comet Wild 2 in 2004. It will take a sample of comet particles and return them to Earth. The small spacecraft (about 770 pounds = 350 kg) was launched February 7, 1999 and rendezvoused with comet Wild 2 in January, 2004. It will return to Earth on January 15, 2006, and land in western Utah, USA. Comet Wild 2 (aka Comet 81P) is a short-period comet that was discovered by the Swiss astronomer Paul Wild on January 6, 1978. The comet's nucleus is about 3 miles (5 km) across. Wild 2 orbits the Sun every 6.39 years; its elliptical orbit ranges from about Mars' orbit to Jupiter's orbit.

COSMIC SNOWBALLS
There is a new and very controversial theory that comets (composed of frozen water) are constantly bombarding the Earth. These "cosmic snowballs" have (perhaps) been seen by the visible imaging system of the Polar Satellite. In theory, these frozen comets vaporize in the atmosphere, adding water vapor to the environment.

Comet Activities
Comet coloring page

Label the comet or got to the answers.

Comet Cloze: A fill-in-the-blanks activity on comets. Answers

A quiz about comets

An interactive puzzle about comets



Enchanted Learning®
Over 35,000 Web Pages
Sample Pages for Prospective Subscribers, or click below

Overview of Site
What's New
Enchanted Learning Home
Monthly Activity Calendar
Books to Print
Site Index

K-3
Crafts
K-3 Themes
Little Explorers
Picture dictionary
PreK/K Activities
Rebus Rhymes
Stories
Writing
Cloze Activities
Essay Topics
Newspaper
Writing Activities
Parts of Speech

Fiction
The Test of Time
iPhone app
TapQuiz Maps - free iPhone Geography Game

Biology
Animal Printouts
Biology Label Printouts
Biomes
Birds
Butterflies
Dinosaurs
Food Chain
Human Anatomy
Mammals
Plants
Rainforests
Sharks
Whales
Physical Sciences: K-12
Astronomy
The Earth
Geology
Hurricanes
Landforms
Oceans
Tsunami
Volcano
Languages
Dutch
French
German
Italian
Japanese (Romaji)
Portuguese
Spanish
Swedish
Geography/History
Explorers
Flags
Geography
Inventors
US History

Other Topics
Art and Artists
Calendars
College Finder
Crafts
Graphic Organizers
Label Me! Printouts
Math
Music
Word Wheels

Click to read our Privacy Policy

E-mail


Enchanted Learning Search

Search the Enchanted Learning website for:



Advertisement.



Advertisement.



Advertisement.



Copyright ©1999 EnchantedLearning.com ------ How to cite a web page