Learn how comets--the "dirty snowballs" of space--are formed. And if comets could support life!
December 17, 2021
Comets are quite the celestial spectacle as they blaze across our skies. But what exactly are comets? How are they formed? Can comets support life? See comet facts and learn all about the “dirty snowballs” of space!
What Are Comets?
Comets are ball of frozen gases, rock, and dust—unlike asteriods which are made of rock and metal. Specifically, comets are composed of frozen gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia, as well as water ice, in which dust particles and rocky material are embedded.
Think of comets as comic snowballs—or, some people jokingly refer to comets as dirty snowballs! They are left over from the formation of stars and planets billions of years ago.
When the gravity from a large passing body, like our Sun, becomes strong enough, the comet enters into the Sun’s orbit. As that ball of ice gets close enough to the Sun, its heat begins to melt some of the ice that makes up the comet.
Some of its ice turns into a giant glowing head larger than most planets. The gases and dust form a long, bright trail, ortail, of vapor that stretches away from the Sun for millions of kilometers, being pushed out by the Sun’s solar wind. That tail is a comet’s most amazing feature.
No, comets may not be able to support life themselves. However, they may have brought water and organic compounds—the building blocks of life—through collisions with Earth and other bodies in our solar system.
As Almanac astronomer Bob Berman says, “Comets are relics of the birth of the solar system around 4.6 billion years ago. Comets are part of the original material that made up the solar system.”
Why do see we green comets? They are not common, but the green is caused by dark organic matter on the comet itself! You won’t find this on an astroid.
Credit: Gerald Rhemann/NASA. This image of comet Encke was taken in Jauerling (lower Austria) in May of 2014.
Comet History and Lore
Most comets are unpredictable. Over the centuries, people were both awed and alarmed by comets because of this unpredictability—as if they were stars that suddenly appeared in the sky. Can you imagine a object over a mile wide appearing above your head?
Through the ages, comets were omens and portends—usually of doom and death and bad things. Comets were not good! Remember that it was a comet that probably wiped out the dinosaurs on Earth. That said, comets have also been taken as good omens by some historic figures, such a William the Conquerer.
Credit: Gerald Rhemann/NASA. Photo taken in Ebebwaldhoehe (lower Austria) with a Schmidt Camera. Exposure time:10 minutes.
Landing on a Comet!
In 2014, European Space Agency proble Rosetta (named after the famous Rosetta Stone) landed successfully on a comet—Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P). Below are some amazing images of the comet. All credit goes to ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CCBY-SAIGO 3.0.
Rosetta “selfie” at Mar
Rosetta’s image of Comet 67P with a tail of gas and dust, as it orbits the comet from 162 km (101 mi) away.
Rosettta’s image of Comet 67P as it orbits the comet from 10 km (6 mi) away.
Learn more about the Rosetta mission on the European Space Agency web site here.