Comets




Before the seventeenth century, comets were considered portents-warning shots fired at a
sinful Earth from the right hand of an avenging God. However, in the post-Newtonian era, when
their paths were understood to intersect that of the Earth, they were considered actual agents of
destruction. Experts have described comets as the carriers of both life-seeds to the early Earth
and horrific missiles that will one day snuff out life as we know it. At one time or another,
people have blamed comets for war and held responsible for the deaths of men, the birth of good
wine, the London fire of 1666, severely cold weather, etc . . . If one central theme runs
throughout history of comets, it must be the public concern they have commanded.
Comets are ancient objects, formed in the outer reaches of the Solar System from the ice
of gases such as methane, water vapor, and ammonia, combined with dust from primitive rock
compounds. Sometimes comets are described as "dirty snowballs" because they are icy lumps,
or wandering icebergs. Comets are relatively tiny- just a few miles across on average. Their
nuclei are very different from glowing balls of light, with multimillion-mile-long tails. This is
one reason comets occasionally visit the inner Solar System.
Astronomers divide comets into long-period types with orbits of more than 200 years and
short-period types with orbits of less than 200 years (as cited in Branley 1988 p. 43). All comets
begin their journey as long- period types. Gravitational fields of planets then capture long-
period comets. Comets can have orbits at any angle because they can come from any region.
Once comets are captured, they fall into line with the movement of planets, staying close to the
ecliptic, orbiting the sun in the same direction as the planets. One exception is Halley\'s Comet.
It is a short-period comet with an orbital period of about seventy-six years- known as retrograde
orbits (as cited in Branley 1988 p. 44). Retrograde orbits are simply clockwise orbital motion, as
seen from the north pole of a planet. Most Solar System orbits are counter clockwise.
Like people, comets group too. When several comets with different periods travel in
nearly the same orbit, experts say that they are members of a comet group. One well-known
group includes the spectacular Sun-grazing comet, Ikeya-Seki, of 1965, and seven others having
periods of nearly a thousand years. Brian G. Marsden, an American astronomer, has concluded
that a 1965 comet and the even brighter comet of 1882 split from a parent comet, possibly the
one of 1106 (as cited in Yeomans 1991 p. 184).
One interesting contribution of the comet is the solar effect. The process starts by a
comet approaching the sun. Once the comet approaches the sun, solar heat sublimates, or
evaporates, the ices. This causes the comet to brighten enormously. Sometimes this develops a
brilliant tail, extending millions of kilometers into space. Even as the comet recedes again, the
tail is directed away from the sun.
What are these spectacular comet tails composed of? Comet tails are made up of simple
ionized molecules, including carbon monoxide and dioxide. By action of solar wind, molecules
are blown away, forming a thin stream of hot gases continuously ejected from the solar corona.
In case you do not know the meaning of a solar corona, it is the outermost atmosphere of the
Sun. Amazingly, the thin streams of high gases move at a speed of approximately 400
kilometers (250 miles) per second (as cited in Yeomans 1991 p. 185). In addition, a comet
frequently also displays smaller, curved tails composed of fine dust particles blown from the
coma by the pressure of solar radiation.
Yet, as a comet recedes from the Sun, the loss of gas and other dust particles decrease in
quantity, which contribute to the disappearance of the tail. Some comets with small orbits
contain tails so short that they are practically invisible. However, the tail of at least one comet
has indeed exceeded approximately 320 million kilometers (200 million miles) in length (as cited
in Yeornans 1991 p. 183). Surprisingly, of some 1400 comets on record, fewer than half the tails
were visible to the naked eye, and fewer than 10 percent were conspicuous (as cited in Yeornans
1991 p. 185).
Interestingly, amateur astronomer Yuji Hayukutake from Hawaii, discovered Comet
Hayukutake. This discovery was on January 30, 1996 (as cited in rosat-goc-comet) However,
mid -march is at its most visible in the northern hemisphere. This surprise comet has turned out
to be the closest and