A comet is an icy body that releases gas or dust. Most of the comets that can be seen from Earth travel around the sun in long, oval orbits. A comet consists of a solid nucleus (core) surrounded by a cloudy atmosphere called the coma and one or two tails. Most comets are too small or too faint to be seen without a telescope. Some comets, however, become visible to the unaided eye for several weeks as they pass close to the sun. We can see comets because the gas and dust in their comas and tails reflect sunlight. Also, the gases release energy absorbed from the sun, causing them to glow.
Astronomers believe that comets are leftover debris from a collection of gas, ice, rocks, and dust that formed the outer planets about 4.6 billion years ago. Some scientists believe that comets originally brought to Earth some of the water and the carbon-based molecules that make up living things.
Comets have a variety of different orbital periods, ranging from a few years, to hundreds of thousands of years, while some are believed to pass only once through the inner Solar System before being thrown out into interstellar space. Short-period comets are thought to originate in the Kuiper Belt, or associated scattered disc, which lie beyond the orbit of Neptune.
Long-period comets are believed to originate in the Oort cloud, consisting of debris left over from the condensation of the solar nebula, located well-beyond the Kuiper Belt. Comets are thrown from these outer reaches of the Solar System towards the Sun by gravitational perturbations from the outer planets (in the case of Kuiper Belt objects) or nearby stars (in the case of Oort Cloud objects), or as a result of collisions between objects within these regions.
The nucleus of a comet is a ball of ice and rocky dust particles that resembles a dirty snowball. The ice consists mainly of frozen water but may include other frozen substances, such as ammonia, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane. Scientists believe the nucleus of some comets may be fragile because several comets have split apart for no apparent reason.
As a comet nears the inner solar system, heat from the sun vaporizes some of the ice on the surface of the nucleus, spewing gas and dust particles into space. This gas and dust forms the comet's coma. Radiation from the sun pushes dust particles away from the coma. These particles form a tail called the dust tail. At the same time, the solar wind -- that is, the flow of high-speed electrically charged particles from the sun-converts some of the comet's gases into ions (charged particles). These ions also stream away from the coma, forming an ion tail. Because comet tails are pushed by solar radiation and the solar wind, they always point away from the sun.
Most comets are thought to have a nucleus that measures about 10 miles (16 kilometers) or less across. Some comas can reach diameters of nearly 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers). Some tails extend to distances of 100 million miles (160 million kilometers).
Coma is the nebulous envelope around the nucleus of a comet. It is formed when the comet passes close to the Sun on its highly elliptical orbit; as the comet warms, parts of it sublimate.
A Comet tail and coma are illuminated by the Sun and may become visible from Earth when a comet passes through the inner solar system, the dust reflecting sunlight directly and the gases glowing from ionisation. Most comets are too faint to be visible without the aid of a telescope, but a few each decade become bright enough to be visible to the naked eye.
The streams of dust and gas each form their own distinct tail, pointing in slightly different directions. The tail of dust is left behind in the comet's orbit in such a manner that it often forms a curved tail called the antitail. At the same time, the ion tail, made of gases, always points directly away from the Sun, as this gas is more strongly affected by the solar wind than is dust, following magnetic field lines rather than an orbital trajectory. Parallax viewing from the Earth may sometimes mean the tails appear to point in opposite directions.
While the solid nucleus of comets is generally less than 50 km across, the coma may be larger than the Sun, and ion tails have been observed to extend 1 astronomical unit (150 million km) or more. The observation of antitails contributed significantly to the discovery of solar wind. The ion tail is formed as a result of the photoelectric effect of solar ultra-violet radiation acting on particles in the coma. Once the particles have been ionised, they attain a net positive electrical charge which in turn gives rise to an induced magnetosphere around the comet. The comet and its induced magnetic field form an obstacle to outward flowing solar wind particles. As the relative orbital speed of the comet and the solar wind is supersonic a bow shock is formed upstream of the comet, in the flow direction of the solar wind. In this bow shock, large concentrations of cometary ions congregate and act to "load" the solar magnetic field with plasma, such that the field lines "drape" around the comet forming the ion tail.
Most comets have elongated elliptical orbits that take them close to the Sun for a part of their orbit, and then out into the further reaches of the Solar System for the remainder. Comets are often classified according to the length of their orbital period; the longer the period the more elongated the ellipse.