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Kepler's Laws were shown by Newton to explain the motion of comets. They orbit the Sun in highly elliptical orbits coming close to the Sun for a while and then moving off to the outer reaches of the Solar System to return many years later (see Figure 1). The orbit period of a comet may vary form a few years (Encke's comet has a period of 3.28 years) to many thousands or even millions of year for very long period comets.

Comets are huge balls of grit and ice many kilometers in diameter. (Halley's comet has a nucleus about 16 km x 8 km across).
When they come near the Sun the heat melts some of the ice and this produces a huge cloud of gas and dust that we see as the tail of the comet. These tails, millions of kilometers in length, become visible as they near the Sun. The tail always points away from the Sun because of the pressure of the solar wind on its tiny particles (Figure 1).

We only see a comet for a short time because they move fast when they are close to the Sun but very slowly in the outer parts of their orbit, see Kepler's second law. One of the most famous comets, Halley's comet returns every 75 years.

In recent years comets Hyukutake and Hale-Bopp have been visible with the naked eye and have made a fine show in the night sky. Comet Shoemaker-Levy was memorable because it was pulled into many fragments by the gravitational pull of Jupiter. These fragments then crashed into the surface of the planet, the impacts being visible through a telescope from Earth. I saw comet Hyukutake from the roof of a small hotel on the edge of the Sahara desert a truly fantastic site the comet's tail stretched across the sky a distance equal to the length of the constellation Ursa Major (The Plough).

Comets are thought to originate in the Oort cloud (where there may be up to 6x1012) and in the Kuiper belt. The Oort cloud is a spherical region of space from about 6000 AU from the Sun to roughly 2 light years away. The greatest concentration of comets is thought to be around 40 000 AU from the Sun.

If a comet were ever to crash into the Earth the effect would be catastrophic. The enormous effect of an impact of a large comet on the Earth would change life as we know it on the planet. The impact of a comet thousands of years ago probably caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

It is thought that the gravitational pull of Jupiter has helped deflect comets from orbits where they might collide with the Earth.

schoolphysics: Motion of a comet animation

To see an animation of the movement of the motion of a comet click on the animation link.


© Keith Gibbs 2020