COMETS

BY
Snehal Chintala

Astronomer think that there are as many as trillion comets whirling around our solar system.

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Where are they from?

Many comets originate in the Oort cloud, a roughly spherical volume of space around the Sun filled with millions of tiny comet nuclei in random orbits. The majority of comets in the Oort cloud spend most of their time about 50,000 AU from the Sun. At such great distances from the Sun the orbits of the comets are perturbed by nearby stars, and eventually a few enter the inner solar system. Occasionally a comet has a gravitational encounter with a planet (such as Jupiter) and will remain in the inner solar system as a short period comet where as long period comets are found in kuiper belt.

Comets move extremely slowly in the Oort Cloud. But they are not hanging around motionless. Because they obey Kepler's second law of motion, which dictates that objects in elliptical orbits will move very slowly when far from the sun, and very fast when near it.

Because comets seem to "live" in a huge cloud at the edge of our solar system, they are highly unpredictable, since they can come at us from any direction -- at any time.

General sketch of comet

‡

Comets are similar to asteroids but contain a high percentage of ices (including water ice). The solid nuclei are generally smaller than asteroids (on average only a few km in diameter). Short period comets orbit the Sun in 200 years or less (example: Halley's comet). Long period comets take more than 200 years to orbit the Sun (example:Hale-bopp)

What are comets ?

This changes with distance from the Sun. The features most familiar to us are those the comet has when it is in the inner solar system. Away from the sun the comet consists only of its tiny, cold nucleus. Comets are almost always invisible to astronomers until they become active.

Anatomy of a comet
nucleus: "dirty ice balls" which are the icy equivalent of asteroids. They are usually only 1-10 km across, but may be as big as 100 km in diameter. This is the only substantial and solid part of a comet. coma: a cloud of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gases which is sublimed off of the nucleus and contains very little mass. At 1 Astronomical Unit the coma can be as large as Jupiter (about 10 times the diameter of the Earth, or even nearly as large as the Sun (about 100 times the diameter of the Earth)! Together the coma and the nucleus form the head of the comet. The nucleus is very dark, but the coma makes the head the brightest part of the comet. dust tail: composed of small (smoke-sized) dust particles driven off the nucleus by escaping gases; this is the part of a comet that is easiest to see, and is not as long as the ion tail. ion tail: composed of plasma (ionized gases) and created by interaction with the solar wind (see below). The ion tail can be as much as 1-2 AU (150 - 300 million km long) when a comet is near the Sun!

Life cycle of a comet
Beyond 6 AU a comet nucleus is too cold to sublimate and the comet is inactive. Between 4 and 6 AU the volatile ices begin to sublime. After the comet crosses the orbit of Jupiter it is becoming active. By the time it crosses the Earth's orbit at 1 AU the comet is very active with a coma and a tail up to 1-2 AU long. At the closest approach to the Sun (perihelion) the comet is most active and may fragment. As the comet again passes the orbit of Jupiter it is becoming inactive. At 6 AU it is again only a tiny and inactive nucleus. Occasionally an unlucky comet will strike the Sun. The illustration at background shows the appearance of a comet throughout its life cycle.

Information on Selected Comets
Name Orbital perio d 76.1 yrs 3.30 yrs. 6.51 yrs. 5.51 yrs. 6.86 yrs. 6.52 yrs. 5.09 yrs. 27.89 yrs. 5.29 yrs. Perihelion date 1986-02-09 2003-12-28 2008-08-01 2005-07-07 2001-09-14 1998-11-21 1992-07-22 1984-09-01 1995-12-25 Perihelion distance Semi-major axis 17.94 AU 2.21 AU 3.49 AU 3.12 AU 3.61 AU 3.52 AU 2.96 AU 9.20 AU 3.02 AU Orbital eccentricity 0.976 0.847 0.614 0.519 0.624 0.706 0.664 0.919 0.825 Halley Encke d'Arrest Tempel1 Borrelly Giacobini-Zinner Grigg-Skjellerup Crommelin
Honda-MrkosPajdusakova

0.587 AU 0.340 AU 1.346 AU 1.500 AU 1.358 AU 0.996 AU 0.989 AU 0.743 AU 0.528 AU

Wirtanen Tempel-tuttel Schwassmann Kohoutek

5.46 yrs. 32.92 yrs. 5.36 yrs. 6.24 yrs.

2013-10-21 1998-02-28 2006-06-02 1973-12-28

1.063 AU 0.982 AU 0.937 AU 1.571 AU

3.12 AU 10.33 AU 3.06 AU 3.4 AU

0.652 0.906 0.694 0.537

What is the difference between these small comets and the large comets like Hale-Bopp and Halley's?

‡ The small comets are a million times smaller than these more famous comets. The small comets also contain little dust and lack the iron and other metals necessary to make them glow brightly and produce a tail like the larger comets. But what they have in common--and the reason they were dubbed "small comets" in the first place--is that they are both largely made of water.

Why haven't the space shuttle and our satellites been hit by these small comets? In low Earth orbit, where the space shuttle flies, astronauts can expect to run into the cometary water clouds from the small comets once in every 200 orbits. At the shuttle's altitude a small comet has already disintegrated in a cloud; it is no longer a solid object and the collision with a cloud is benign. So the astronauts have probably flown through these things and not known it. But at high altitudes, an impact of a spacecraft with a small comet would be disastrous. Since these comets are small and the collision frequency is low, an average-sized spacecraft would only be struck once in every 50,000 years or so. This means that one spacecraft in every thousand will be struck in high Earth orbit every 50 years. Has it happened yet? No one knows. But some spacecraft have been lost and no one knows why.

Why do the small comets break up and turn into clouds of water vapor ? The small comets are giant, loosely packed "snowballs" with some kind of thin shell, made perhaps of carbon, that holds them together as they travel through interstellar space. But as they approach the electrically charged Earth, the electrostatic stress on these objects causes them to break up at an altitude of about 800 miles above Earth. Rapid electrostatic erosion appears to be the mechanism responsible for stripping the thin protective mantle from the water-snow core of a small comet. By the time the fragments of the comet have descended to about 600 miles, the "snowball" fragments have been vaporized by the Sun's rays.

How much water do the small comets add to the Earth's surface ? At a rate of one 20-to-40 ton comet every three seconds, this influx of small comets into the atmosphere would add about one inch of water to the Earth's surface every 20,000 years or so. The implications of this added water for long range global climate, global warming, and pollution mitigation will need to be examined by the experts in those fields

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