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All About Astronomy
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|Introduction to Comets||Crossing a Comet's Orbit: Meteor Showers||Comet Origins||Major Comets||Acitvities,
Coma: The coma is the roughly spherical blob of gas that surrounds the nucleus of a comet; it is about a million km across. The coma is comprised of water vapor, carbon dioxide gas, ammonia, dust, and neutral gases that have sublimed from the solid nucleus. The coma and the nucleus form the head of a comet.
Ion Tail: A tail of charged gases (ions) always faces away from the sun because the solar wind (ions streaming from the sun at high velocities) pushes it away (it is also called the plasma tail). When the comet is approaching the Sun, the ion tail trails the comet: when the comet is leaving of the Sun, the ion tail leads. The tail fades as the comet moves far from the Sun. The ion tail can be well over 100 million km long.
Dust Tail: The dust tail is a long, wide tailcomposed of microscopic dust particles that are buffeted by photons emitted from the Sun; this tail curves slightly due to the comet's motion. The tail fades as the comet moves far from the Sun.
Hydrogen Envelope: Hydrogen gas surrounds the coma of the comet and trails along for millions of miles (it is usually between the ion tail and the dust tail). The hydrogen envelope is about 10 million km across at the nucleus of the comet and about 100 million km long. It is bigger when the comet is near the Sun.
A COMET'S ORBIT
Comets orbit the Sun in highly elliptical orbits. Their velocity increases greatly when they are near the Sun and slows down at the far reaches of the orbit. Since the comet is light only when it is near the Sun (and is it vaporizing), comets are dark (virtually invisible) throughout most of their orbit. The solar wind pushes the tail away from the Sun.
Some comets crash into the Sun or get so close that they burn up; these comets are called sungrazers.
NASA's Stardust Mission will visit the Comet Wild 2 in 2004. It will take a sample of comet particles and return them to Earth. The small spacecraft (about 770 pounds = 350 kg) was launched February 7, 1999 and rendezvoused with comet Wild 2 in January, 2004. It will return to Earth on January 15, 2006, and land in western Utah, USA. Comet Wild 2 (aka Comet 81P) is a short-period comet that was discovered by the Swiss astronomer Paul Wild on January 6, 1978. The comet's nucleus is about 3 miles (5 km) across. Wild 2 orbits the Sun every 6.39 years; its elliptical orbit ranges from about Mars' orbit to Jupiter's orbit.
There is a new and very controversial theory that comets (composed of frozen water) are constantly bombarding the Earth. These "cosmic snowballs" have (perhaps) been seen by the visible imaging system of the Polar Satellite. In theory, these frozen comets vaporize in the atmosphere, adding water vapor to the environment.
Comet coloring page
Label the comet or got to the answers.
Comet Cloze: A fill-in-the-blanks activity on comets. Answers
A quiz about comets
An interactive puzzle about comets
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