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Comets: Overview
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Color image of comet against a background of stars.
This image of Comet C/2001 Q4 (NEAT) was taken at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Ariz. in 2004.

Comets are cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust roughly the size of a small town. When a comet's orbit brings it close to the sun, it heats up and spews dust and gases into a giant glowing head larger than most planets. The dust and gases form a tail that stretches away from the sun for millions of kilometers.

BREAKING NEWS: On 19 October 19, Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) will pass by Mars only about 82,000 miles (132,000 km) away--which would be like a comet passing about 1/3 of the distance between Earth and the Moon. The nucleus of the comet won't hit Mars, but there could be a different kind of collision -- a the first observed collision of two atmospheres.

For more details on this exciting near-miss, visit:

Comet Watch: Siding Spring (C/2013 A1)

10 Need-to-Know Things About Comets:

  1. If the sun were as tall as a typical front door, Earth would be the size of a nickel, dwarf planet Pluto would be the size of a head of a pin and the largest Kuiper Belt comet (about 100 km across, which is about one twentieth the size of Pluto) would only be about the size of a grain of dust.
    Link to Rosetta mission to a comet
    Rosetta: Comet Chaser
  2. Short-period comets (comets that orbit the sun in less than 200 years) reside in the icy region known as the Kuiper Belt beyond the orbit of Neptune from about 30 to 55 AU. Long-period comets (comets with long, unpredictable orbits) originate in the far-off reaches of the Oort Cloud, which is five thousand to 100 thousand AUs from the sun.
  3. Days on comets vary. One day on comet Halley varies between 2.2 to 7.4 Earth days (the time it takes for comet Halley to rotate or spin once). Comet Halley makes a complete orbit around the sun (a year in this comet's time) in 76 Earth years.
  4. Comets are cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust.
  5. A comet warms up as it nears the sun and develops an atmosphere, or coma. The coma may be hundreds of thousands of kilometers in diameter.
  6. Comets do not have moons.
  7. Comets do not have rings.
  8. More than 20 missions have explored comets from a variety of viewpoints.
  9. Comets may not be able to support life themselves, but they may have brought water and organic compounds -- the building blocks of life -- through collisions with Earth and other bodies in our solar system.
  10. Comet Halley makes an appearance in the Bayeux Tapestry from the year 1066, which chronicles the overthrow of King Harold by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings.

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Homework? We can help. Link to comets homework helper.
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Last Updated: 22 Sep 2014