Comets are potato-shaped lumps of dust measuring only a few kilometres across, but accompanied by (when near the Sun) tails of has or dust that stretch for hundreds of millions of kilometres across space. The lump of dust is fused together by frozen gases and water ice. Like all other objects in the Solar System, comets orbit the Sun, although their orbits are often very elliptical (elongated ovals), looping in towards the Sun from distant reaches of the Solar System. When a comet approaches the Sun, part of its ices melt and the gas and dust escape, forming a surrounding cloud, or coma. As it rounds the Sun, the coma is swept back into two tails, a straight gas tail and a broader, curved dust tail, always pointing away from the Sun.

Sometimes, small pieces of debris break off from comets. Great showers of these fragments, called meteors, sometimes come quite close to Earth. Millions of tiny particles burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. Commonly known as shooting stars, they appear to us as split-second streaks of light in the night sky.


The English astronomer Edmund Halley (1656-1742) was the first to realise that comets were orbiting objects. He once made a famous prediction: a comet that he observed in 1682 would return to the skies in 1758. Halley believed that comets recorded in 1531 and 1607 were simply earlier sightings of the one he saw in 1682. Halley did not live to see his prediction come true. Halley’s Comet, as it has been known ever since, was duly sighted on Christmas Day 1758 and has reappeared every 75 to 76 years. When Halley’s Comet appeared in March 1986, the space probe Giotto flew within 600 kilometres of it, sending back pictures and sampling the gases and dust particles given off by it.

A sighting of a comet is always a great event. The 1997 appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp was the most spectacular of recent years. Comets can also be destructive if they pass too close to a planet. In July 1994, drawn in by gravity, fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy smashed into Jupiter, creating massive fireballs on impact.

            On 30th June 1908 there was a huge explosion in the Tunguska region of Siberia, Russia. Trees in an area about 100 km across were felled by the blast, but no crater was found. The Tunguska fireball may have been a comet exploding at an altitude of about 6 km.

Picture Credit : Google