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How Comets Work

Comets are small astronomical bodies that revolve around the sun like the planets. They are seen in the sky as round glowing objects with a similarly glowing tail. Long before scientific studies were done on these objects, comets were believed to be omens of bad luck. However, like other heavenly bodies, these are just bodies orbiting the sun at a definite speed following specific laws of physics. The name “comet” was derived from the Greek word kome whose meaning is “hair of the head”. This is actually the description of the appearance of the comet when it gets near to the sun which looks like a round “head” with a glowing “hair”.

Comet’s Characteristics Comets are made up of two parts; the head (or coma) and the tail. The coma is composed of small bits of rocks, ice, dust and frozen gases. While the comet is far from the sun (in the outer part of the solar system), the coma appears frozen. When the comet approaches the sun, the comet’s tail appears. Comets usually exhibit two distinct tails. The first is the tail of dust which is left behind as the comet traverses its orbit and oftentimes appears as curved. When

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a comet comes near to the sun, the light from the sun is reflected from the dust particles hence it becomes visible from earth.

This is similar to how gas nebulae (which are made up of gases) appear like glowing clouds in outer space. The comet’s other tail (gas tail) is made up of volatile gases. The glow of the gas tail appears when the radiation from the sun ionizes the gases until it glows with the light that we see. The ionization of the comet’s gas tail is similar to the process by which the gases inside a flourescent light or a neon sign are ionized and lighted when electricity passes through it. In a comet, the radiation pressure and solar wind pushes the ionized gases away from the sun creating a tail that is always pointing away from it.

The comet’s head generally have sizes ranging from ? to 50 kilometers across. However its tail extends much longer up to 150 million kilometers which is much larger than the sun’s size. The comet follows an orbit similar to other objects in the solar system like the planets. The orbit is elliptical wherein the sun is located in one of the ellipse’s focus points. While far from the sun, the comet is usually not very visible and it also has slower speed. When it approaches the sun, the tails become very distinct and it achieves faster speed. The Comet’s Fate

Comets are believed to have been formed at the same time the solar system was formed. They were thought to have been created with the materials where our sun was also made of. Studying comets will therefore provide insights on the nature of the objects in the Solar System like the sun. The materials that form the comet; the gases, dust, ice and other particles may evaporate sometime. This will leave the comet into an inert form similar to an asteroid. Studying the comet’s life cycle would then tell us many things about how our own solar system was formed and how it would eventually end.

Aside from that, we could also learn from other things like the effect of solar radiation pressure and solar wind to the gases in a comet. We can study how these can be applied to our technology like space probes and satellites. The effects of solar radiation and solar wind can be studied as ways of propulsion or even power supply for space vehicles.


Freudenrich, Carl (2008). How Comets Work Retrieved April 28, 2008 from HowStuffWorks Communication (http://home. howstuffworks. com/light-bulb. htm)

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