Monday, March 30, 2009

“Mommy, Where Do Comets Come From?”

The solar system has two cometary reservoirs, both named after the Dutch astronomers who discovered them. The nearer reservoir is called the Kuiper Belt. The short-period comets, those whose orbital period is less than 200 years, are believed to come from this region, which extends from the orbit of Pluto out to several 100 A.U. Comets from this region orbit peacefully unless some gravitational influence sends one into an eccentric orbit that takes it outside of the belt. Long-period comets, it is believed, originate in the Oort Cloud, a vast area (some 50,000–100,000 A.U. in radius) surrounding the solar system and consisting of comets orbiting in various planes. Oort comets are distributed in a spherical cloud instead of a disk.
The Oort Cloud is at such a great distance from the sun, that it extends about 1⁄3 of the distance to the nearest star. We don’t see the vast majority of these comets, because their orbital paths, though still bound by the sun’s gravitational pull, never approach the perimeter of the solar system. However, it is believed that the gravitational field of a passing star from time to time deflects a comet out of its orbit within the Oort Cloud, sending it on a path to the inner solar system, perhaps sealing our fate.
Once a short-period or long-period comet is kicked out of its Kuiper Belt or Oort Cloud home, it assumes its eccentric orbit indefinitely. That is, it can’t go home again. A comet will, each time it passes close to the sun, lose a bit of its mass as it is boiled away. A typical comet loses about 1⁄100 of its mass each time it passes the sun, and so, after 100 passages, will typically fragment and continue to orbit or coalesce with the sun as a collection of debris. As the earth passes through these orbital paths, we experience meteor showers.

A Tale of Two Tails

Most comets actually have two tails. The dust tail is usually broader and more diffuse than the ion tail, which is more linear. The ion tail is made up of ionized atoms—that is, atoms that have lost one or more electrons and that, therefore, are now electrically charged. Both the dust tail and the ion tail point away from the sun. But the dust tail is usually seen to have a curved shape that trails the direction of motion of the comet. Careful telescopic or binocular observations of nearby comets can reveal both of these tails.
What we cannot see optically is the vast hydrogen envelope that surrounds the coma and the tail. It is invisible to optical observations.
Common sense tells us that the tail would stream behind the fast-moving nucleus of the comet. This is not the case, however. The ion tail (far from the sun) or tails (the dust tail appears as the comet gets close to the sun) point away from the sun, regardless of the direction of the comet’s travel. Indeed, as the comet rounds the sun and begins to leave the sun’s proximity, the tail actually leads the nucleus and coma. This is because the tail is “blown” like a wind sock by the solar wind, an invisible stream of matter and radiation that continually escapes from the sun. It was by observing the behavior of comet tails that astronomers discovered the existence of the solar wind.

Anatomy of a Comet

The word comet derives from the Greek word kome, meaning “hair.” The name describes the blurry, diaphanous appearance of a comet’s long tail. But the tail is only part of the anatomy of a comet, and it is not even a permanent part, forming only as the comet nears the sun. For most of the comet’s orbit, only its main, solid body—its nucleus—exists. It is a relatively small (a few miles in diameter) mass of irregular shape made up of ice and something like soot, consisting of the same hydrocarbons and silicates that we find in asteroids.
The orbit of the typical comet is extremely eccentric (elongated), so that most comets (called longperiod comets) travel even beyond Pluto and may take millions of years to complete a single orbit.
So-called “short-period” comets don’t venture beyond Pluto and, therefore, have much shorter orbital periods.
As a comet approaches the sun, the dust on its surface becomes hotter, and the ice below the crusty surface of the nucleus sublimates—immediately changes to a gas without first becoming liquid. The gas leaves the comet, carrying with it some of the dust. The gas molecules absorb solar radiation, then reradiate it at another wavelength while the dust acts to scatter the sunlight. The effect of this is the creation of a coma, a spherical envelope of gas and dust (perhaps 60,000 miles across) surrounding the nucleus and a long tail consisting of gases and more dust particles.