Comets

Comet Hale-BoppA photograph of Comet Hale-Bopp, kindly donated to the Observatory by Thomas Bopp. Image Credit: Thomas Bopp. Comets can be spectacular objects seen in the night-time sky. They have been associated by the superstitious with disasters and other notable historical events. Until the 1986 opposition of Halley's comet, the true nature of a comet's nucleus was the subject of argument amongst astronomers.

The passage of the Giotto probe close to the nucleus of comet Halley and the many observations that were carried out worldwide have vastly improved our knowledge of the nature of comets.

Because comets can be seen so easily, records of the observation of comets can be traced back over many centuries. It was from a study of the historical observations of several comets that Halley, using Newton's new theory of gravitation, showed that the orbits of several comets around the Sun were almost identical. He postulated that they were all the same object and predicted that it would be seen again at a certain time in the future. As we know, Halley's comet did reappear around the predicted date and has been seen since then on each of its journeys in towards the Sun.

Comets, as seen from the Earth, appear to have some sort of nucleus which is surrounded by a bright, more or less circular region called the 'coma' from which one or more tails may be seen spreading out away from the direction to the Sun. These tails when photographed can be seen to be different colours. There is often a filamentary structured tail which is bluish and a series of more amorphous tails which are yellowish. The supposed nucleus of the comet is the bright centre of the coma. The coma and the tails develop markedly as the comet gets closer to the Sun with tail lengths sometimes growing as long as 100 million kilometres.

The orbit of a comet

The first computation of cometary orbits was made by Halley, as mentioned above. Since then the orbits of many hundreds of comets have been determined. They almost all fall into two types; periodic orbits, which take the form of very eccentric ellipses, and parabolic orbits.

The orbits of many comets have periods ranging from hundreds of years to tens of millions of years, indicating that they spend much of the time far outside the orbits of Neptune and Pluto. The orbits of the long-period comets are not confined to a plane, like the orbits of the planets, and these comets can appear in any part of the sky. In order to explain the orbits of comets, astronomers have postulated the existence of two groups of comets on the edges of the solar system – the Oort Cloud and the Kuiper Belt.

The Oort Cloud

In 1950, Dutch Astronomer Jan Oort proposed that a large, spherical cloud of comets surrounds the solar system. The Oort Cloud is supposed to be almost 1 light year in radius and could contain up to a trillion small, icy comets. Small perturbations to the very slow motions of these bodies will cause one of them to start its long, slow journey towards the inner solar system under the gravitational pull of the Sun.

The orbit of such a body will be a parabola with the Sun as its focus. As the comet gets closer to the Sun its velocity increases reaching a maximum at its closest point whereupon is starts its journey back out to the outer reaches of the solar system, never to be seen again. The Oort Cloud has never been observed, only theorised, but its existence would explain the orbits of long period comets, which have orbital periods greater than 200 years.

Sometimes, during its journey through the solar system, a comet may pass close to one of the major planets. If this encounter is a close one then the gravitational pull of the planet will dramatically change the comet's orbit and can alter the parabolic orbit into a closed, elliptical orbit. The comet the becomes a periodic comet with a definite period for its returns close to the Sun. Halley's comet is the best known example of such a comet. The existence of periodic comets, with orbital periods less than 200 years, led to the proposal of a second source of comets:

The Kuiper Belt

The Oort Cloud does not explain the existence of comets which have orbital periods of 200 years or less. In 1951, astronomer Gerald Kuiper suggested that another belt of comets existed beyond the orbit of Neptune, between 30 and 50 astronomical units (4.5 to 7.5 thousand million km) from the Sun. In 1988, a group of astronomers at the University of Hawaii and the University of California at Berkeley began searching for Kuiper Belt objects using a 2.2m telescope in Hawaii. They discovered the first Kuiper Belt object in 1992. Subsequent observations from Hawaii and with the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered dozens of icy objects, each a few hundred km in size and with orbital periods of a few hundred years. The Kuiper Belt may be composed of comets from the Oort Cloud, which have been deflected into smaller orbits by Jupiter or the other outer planets.

A few comets have very short period orbits. For example, Comet Encke has a period of 3.5 years, the shortest known, which places its orbit inside the orbit of Jupiter. It is generally thought that these inner solar system comets originated in the Oort Cloud or the Kuiper Belt but passed close enough to one of the giant planets to be deflected by its gravitational pull into a much smaller orbit.

The cometary nucleus

Until the Giotto probe showed us pictures of the nucleus of comet Halley there was considerable discussion of the nature of a comet's nucleus. We now know that the nucleus is small, about 10–20 kilometres across, is irregular in shape (rather like a peanut), and is almost black. From it jets of gas and dust are forced out by the Sun's radiation. We believe that under the black skin there is a solid body composed of ices of various kinds, including water-ice, dry-ice (made of carbon dioxide), ammonia, methane and many other organic carbon compound ices all mixed together with dust. The dust contains silicates, carbon and carbon compounds.

The cometary coma

Surrounding the nucleus is the bright coma. This is composed of gas and dust which has been expelled as the Sun evaporates the icy nucleus. The parent molecules are mainly split up by energetic ultraviolet radiation from the Sun into simple compounds. These are not necessarily like stable chemicals that we know on the Earth but are simple combinations of atoms. For example, some of the most numerous are CN, C2, OH, C3, H2O+ and NH2. These are broken down pieces of larger chemicals, such as water (H2O) and organic carbon compounds. The expelled gas and dust form a roughly spherical ball around the nucleus. This is many times larger than the nucleus – the coma of a bright comet can be millions of kilometres in size, whereas the nucleus is only 10km or so across.The coma of the Great Comet of 1811 was larger than the Sun.

The action of the Sun's radiation and the magnetic field associated with the solar wind remove gas and dust from the coma and it is 'blown' away to form the comet's tail.

The tail of a comet

The gas which is blown away from the coma is ionised by solar radiation and becomes electrically charged. It is then affected strongly by the magnetic fields associated with the solar wind (a stream of charged particles expelled by the Sun). The gas tail is made visible by line-emission from the excitation of the gas by the Sun's radiation. This gives the gas tail its characteristic blue colour. The geometric shape of the tail is governed by the magnetic structures in the solar wind but predominantly the gas tail points directly away from the direction from the comet to the Sun.

The dust is blown away from the coma by radiation pressure from the sunlight absorbed by individual dust grains. It moves in a direction which is governed by the motion of the comet, by the size of the dust particles and by the speed of ejection from the coma. The dust tail can be complex, multiple and even curved but, in general, will point away from the Sun. Sometimes, due to projection effects, part of the dust tail can be seen pointing in a sunward direction. This is just due to the fact that the comet and the Earth are moving and that part of the tail has been 'left behind' in such a place as to appear to point towards the Sun. The dust tail is yellow because it reflects the Sun's light to us.

The gas tail can be about 100 million km long while the dust tail is around 10 million km long. The longest observed tail on record is the Great Comet of 1843, which had a tail that was 250 million km long (greater than the distance from the Sun to Mars!).

Naming a comet

A comet takes the name of its discoverer, or discoverers. It also has a serial number consisting of the year and a letter designation. In this way all comets are named uniquely. Halley's comet is one of very few exceptions to the naming rule. Halley did not discover 'his' comet but has the honour of having his name attached to it because of his pioneering work in determining the orbits of comets and showing that this comet was periodic.

Predicting a comet

Apart from the periodic comets, whose orbital periods are well known and hence whose returns can be predicted with great accuracy, it is impossible to predict when comets may be seen in the sky. Most of the brightest and most spectacular comets have been ones which have appeared only once and have never been seen again. When a comet is discovered, far from the Sun, it is very difficult to predict how bright it will appear when it comes close to the Earth and the Sun. Some comets seem to emit a lot of gas and dust and produce long and spectacular tails whereas others only produce a small amount of gas and dust and have almost no tail at all.

The Stardust Mission

On February 7 1999, the joint NASA/European space probe Stardust was launched from Cape Kennedy in Florida. The probe will make three loops around the Sun. During the second loop, on 2 January 2004, it will catch up with Comet Wild-2 and pass within about 150 km of the comet's nucleus.

A tennis-racket-shaped particle catcher filled with a low density foam, or 'aerogel', will then be used to slow down and capture particles of dust from the head of the comet. Once the encounter is over, the aerogel device will fold into a capsule which will return the sample of comet dust to Earth.

Tunguska, 1908

I was sitting on the porch of the house at the trading station, looking north. Suddenly in the north...the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared covered with fire. I felt a great heat, as if my shirt had caught fire... At that moment there was a bang in the sky, and a mighty crash... I was thrown twenty feet from the porch and lost consciousness for a moment....

The crash was followed by a noise like stones falling from the sky, or guns firing. The earth trembled.... At the moment when the sky opened, a hot wind, as if from a cannon, blew past the huts from the north. It damaged the onion plants. Later, we found that many panes in the windows had been blown out and the iron hasp in the barn door had been broken.'
Eyewitness account

On the morning of 30 June 1908, a white light streaked across the skies above eastern Russia. At 07.17, there was an explosion with the power of a 20 megaton nuclear bomb above the Tunguska River in Siberia. Trees in the forest around the river were flattened up to 30 km from the explosion, which was heard up to 1000 km away. Since the area was so remote and relatively unpopulated, only one person was killed and very few people saw the explosion. That night, an eerie glow lit the sky across the world. In Western Europe, it was bright enough that night to read a newspaper without a lamp.

Aerial photograph of the Tunguska impact site in 1938Aerial photograph of the Tunguska impact site in 1938.Astronomers now think that a small, low-density asteroid entered the Earth's atmosphere at a glancing angle and exploded about 5–8 km above Tunguska. The mysterious glow in the air that night would have been caused by sunlight scattering off dust from the explosion in the upper atmosphere.