Among the most brilliant and most rare objects in the night sky. These soaring beacons with their beautiful tails come from the outer realms of the Solar System.
What are comets?
A comet is a small world which scientists sometimes call a planetesimal. They are made out of dust and ice, kind of like a dirty snow ball.
Where do they come from?
Comets come from two places: The Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud.
Many people think that a comet's tail is always following behind it, but actually the coma, or tail, can either be behind the comet or in front of it. Which way the tail is pointing depends on where the Sun is. That's right, the Sun's heat and radiation produce a wind called the Solar Wind, as a comet gets close to the Sun it begins to melt. The gas and dust that melt off are blown away from the Sun by the solar winds. So if a comet is traveling towards the Sun then the tail will follow behind, but if the comet is traveling away from the Sun the tail will be in front of the comet.
Imagine a place far, far away at the very edge of the Solar System. A place where millions of comets can be seen swishing around in every direction. These icy comets are orbiting the Sun in two different places, both of which are very distant. One place is called the Oort cloud, and the other is called the Kuiper Belt.
Why do Comets leave their home in the Oort Cloud or Kuiper Belt?
A comet will spend billions of years in the Kuiper Belt or Oort Cloud. Sometimes two comets will come very close to each other, or even crash into one another. When this happens the comets change directions. Sometimes their new path will bring them into the Inner Solar System.
This is when a comet begins to shine. Up until now the comet has been among millions of others exactly the same, but as they approach the warmer Inner Solar System they begin to melt leaving behind magnificent tails.
Unfortunately, comets don't live very long once they enter the warmer part of the Solar System. Just like a snowman melts in the summer, comets melt in the Inner Solar System. Although it is the most glorious part of their lives, traveling through the Inner Solar System eventually kills them. After several thousand years they melt down to a little bit of ice and dust, not nearly enough to leave a tail. Some even melt away completely.
Would it be safe to fly through the tail of a comet?
Unlike a recent blockbuster movie showing a space ship flying past giant rocks the size of houses, a comet's tail is actually quite safe. The only thing that would hit your ship would be microscopic pieces of dust.