Astronomy and Space

Comets and Meteorites

From where do comets originate?

According to a theory developed by Dutch astronomer Jan Oort (1900–1992), there is a large cloud, now called the Oort cloud, of gas, dust, and comets orbiting beyond Pluto out to perhaps 100,000 astronomical units (AU). Occasional stars passing close to this cloud disturb some of the comets from their orbits. Some fall inwards toward the sun.

Comets, sometimes called “dirty snowballs,” are made up mostly of ice, with some dust mixed in. When a comet moves closer to the sun, the dust and ice of the core, or nucleus, heats up, producing a tail of material that trails along behind it. The tail is pushed out by the solar wind and almost always points away from the sun.

Most comets have highly elliptical orbits that carry them around the sun and then fling them back out to the outer reaches of the solar system, never to return. Occasionally, however, a close passage by a comet near one of the planets can alter a comet’s orbit, making it stay in the middle or inner solar system. Such a comet is called a short-period comet because it passes close to the sun at regular intervals. The most famous short-period comet is Comet Halley, which reaches perihelion (the point in its orbit that is closest to the sun) about every 76 years. Comet Encke, with an orbital period of 3.3 years, is another short-period comet.


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