Comets

The tail of a comet points in which direction?

And the answer: away from the sun.    

Comets are made up of ice, dust, and frozen gases. As the comet travels through the inner solar system and gets closer to the sun, heat and solar wind cause the gases and dust to burn, creating the comet's tail that forms away from the sun.

Photo credit: public domain. 

Humans have watched comets race across the night sky for as long as we've walked the Earth. Comets have occupied a place in lore, mythology, spiritual beliefs and even religion. Contrary to popular belief, though, a shooting star refers to meteors, which shine for mere moments before they turn to ash in the Earth's atmosphere. Comets, in contrast, burn across the night sky millions of miles from Earth's atmosphere, traveling along the orbit of the sun. It is for this reason that we can name and recognize comets which return after years or decades. Halley's Comet, for one, famously returns to Earth's vicinity every 75 years.

A comet's lifespan can be thousands of years – a relatively short cycle considering the longevity of our universe. Scientists believe there are two regions of the solar system that produce comets. The first is the Kuiper Belt, which is a band of comets not unlike the Asteroid Belt. Comets from this region have shorter lifespans, and orbit the sun on roughly the same plane as our planets. The other is the Oort Cloud, which is farther out in the solar system. Comets from the Oort Cloud have much longer orbital periods, and can orbit at a drastic incline in relation to the other planets.

Learn more about the lifespan of comets here.


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