Comets and Asteroids

asteroids_compare4.jpg (96393 bytes)   A collection of asteroid images.
Asteroids are rocky and metallic objects that orbit the Sun but are too small to be considered planets. They are known as minor planets. Asteroids range in size from Ceres, which has a diameter of about 1000 km, down to the size of pebbles. Sixteen asteroids have a diameter of 240 km or greater. They have been found inside Earth's orbit to beyond Saturn's orbit. Most, however, are contained within a main belt that exists between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Some have orbits that cross Earth's path and some have even hit the Earth in times past. One of the best preserved examples is Barringer Meteor Crater near Winslow, Arizona. asteroid_belt.gif (4641 bytes)

Asteroids are material left over from the formation of the solar system. One theory suggests that they are the remains of a planet that was destroyed in a massive collision long ago. Asteroids may also be material that never coalesced into a planet. If the estimated total mass of all known asteroids was gathered into a single
object, the object would be less than 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) across -- less than half the diameter of our Moon. However, there may have been more material originally.

Much of our understanding about asteroids comes from examining pieces of space debris that fall to the surface of Earth. Asteroids that are on a collision course with Earth are called meteoroids. When a meteoroid strikes our atmosphere at high velocity, friction causes this chunk of space matter to incinerate in a streak of light known as a meteor. If the meteoroid does not burn up completely, what's left strikes Earth's surface and is called a meteorite

The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro, and in and out,
The wan stars danced between

And the coming wind did roar more loud,
And the sails did sigh like sedge;
And the rain poured down from one black cloud;
The Moon was at its edge

--- Samuel Taylor Cooleridge
from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Inspiring poets (Cooleridge might have the spectacular Leonid meteor shower of 1797) and spectacular to all, meteor showers and meteors can be very impressive.  

Because asteroids are material left over from the very early solar system, scientists are interested in their composition. Spacecraft that have flown through the asteroid belt have found that the belt is really quite empty and that asteroids are separated by very large distances. Before 1991 the only information obtained on asteroids was though Earth based observations. Then on October 1991 asteroid 951 Gaspra was visited by the Galileo spacecraft and became the first asteroid to have hi-resolution images taken of it. Again on August 1993 Galileo made a close encounter with asteroid 243 Ida. This was the second asteroid to be visited by spacecraft. Both Gaspra and Ida are classified as S-type asteroids composed of metal-rich silicates. Of all the meteorites examined, 92.8 percent are composed of silicate (stone), and 5.7 percent are composed of iron and nickel; the rest are a mixture of the three materials. Stony meteorites are the hardest to identify since they look very much like terrestrial rocks.

Comet460_kohoutec.gif (109087 bytes)   A photo of comet Kohoutek with a well developed tail

The main distinction between asteroids and comets seems to be that comets have more volatiles and more elliptical orbits. But there are interesting ambiguous cases such as 2060 Chiron (aka 95 P/Chiron) and 3200 Phaethon and the Kuiper Belt objects which seem to share some aspects of both categories.

Unlike the other small bodies in the solar system, comets have been known since antiquity. There are Chinese records of Comet Halley going back to at least 240 BC. The famous Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, depicts an apparition of Comet Halley.
As of 1995, 878 comets have been cataloged and their orbits at least roughly calculated. Of these 184 are periodic comets (orbital periods less than 200 years); some of the remainder are no doubt periodic as well, but their orbits have not been determined with sufficient accuracy to tell for sure.

Comets are sometimes called dirty snowballs or "icy mudballs". They are a mixture of ices (both water and frozen gases) and dust that for some reason didn't get incorporated into planets when the solar system was formed. This makes them very interesting as samples of the early history of the solar system.

When they are near the Sun and active, comets have several distinct parts:

     nucleus: relatively solid and stable, mostly ice and gas with a small amount of dust and other solids;
     coma: dense cloud of water, carbon dioxide and other neutral gases sublimed off of the nucleus;
     hydrogen cloud: huge (millions of km in diameter) but very sparse envelope of neutral hydrogen;
     dust tail: up to 10 million km long composed of smoke-sized dust particles driven off the nucleus by
                    escaping gases; this is the most prominent part of a comet to  the naked eye;
     ion tail: up to 100 million km long composed of plasma and laced with rays and streamers caused by
                    interactions with the solar wind.

Comets are invisible except when they are near the Sun. Most comets have highly eccentric orbits which take them far beyond the orbit of Pluto; these are seen once and then disappear for millennia. Only the short- and intermediate-period comets (like Comet Halley), stay within the orbit of Pluto for a significant fraction of their orbits.

After 500 or so passes near the Sun off most of a comet's ice and gas is lost leaving a rocky object very much like an asteroid in appearance. (Perhaps half of the near-Earth asteroids may be "dead" comets.) A comet whose orbit takes it near the Sun is also likely to either impact one of the planets or the Sun or to be ejected out of the solar system by a close encounter (esp. with Jupiter).

By far the most famous comet is Comet Halley but SL 9 was a "big hit" for a week in the summer of 1994.

Meteor shower sometimes occur when the Earth passes thru the orbit of a comet. Some occur with great regularity: the Perseid meteor shower occurs every year between August 9 and 13 when the Earth passes thru the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle. Comet Halley is the source of the Orionid shower in October.

Asteroids are sometimes also refered to as minor planets or planetoids (not to be confused with "lesser planets" which refers to Mercury and Pluto). Very small rocks orbiting the Sun are sometimes called meteoroids to distinguish them from the larger asteroids. When such a body enters the Earth's atmosphere it is heated to incandescence and the visible streak in the sky is known as a meteor. If a piece of it survives to reach the Earth's surface it is known as a meteorite.

Millions of meteors bright enough to see strike the Earth every day (amounting to hundreds of tons of material). All but a tiny fraction burn up in the atmosphere before reaching the ground. The few that don't are our major source of physical information about the rest of the solar system (some new information about cometary flux to earth).

meteor.jpg (14993 bytes) Photographs of the night sky are a major tool for meteor hunters.  By making long time exposures from a fixed camera, objects that move over the night sky slowly (stars & planets) will show up as curved streaks (due to earth rotation), but bright and fast moving objects show up as streaks that cut across this pattern.