Our universe is unimaginably vast and contains hundreds of thousands of objects. Some of these can be very easily mistaken as another because a lot of them overlap traits. A quite common example of this is comets, asteroids, and meteors. A lot of people use these terms synonymously, which is a mistake considering their distinct differences. This post will discuss these differences and hopefully clear up common misconceptions.
Comets, by definition, are small, icy, solar system bodies that make the sad mistake of getting too close to the gigantic ball of gas and plasma that we call our sun. When comets pass too close, they start heating up, releasing gases, which scientists refer to as 'outgassing' (no, for real). This creates a 'gravitationally unbound atmosphere', or a coma. The dust, gas, and ice particles start streaming behind the comet, creating the symbolic tail.
- The name comet comes from Kometes, which means long hair. In this case, the 'hair' stretches for millions of miles.
- Comets have four parts: a nucleus, a coma, a dust tail, and an ion tail.
- Comets get halos when they move closer to the sun - the coma - so they are kind of like intergalactic angels.
- Comets actually have two tails, contrary to widespread belief, an ion tail and a gas tail that point away from the sun due to solar radiation
Meteors, on the other hand, are streaks of light caused by spaces rocks burning up when they enter earth's atmosphere. They range from the size of grains to a meter wide and are generally smaller than asteroids. If it is smaller than this, it is a micrometeoroid. Meteors usually are fragments of asteroids and comets. If a meteor survives and lands on earth intact, it is called a meteorite.
- Meteors are what people call 'shooting stars' or 'fireballs', depending on their size.
- Millions of meteoroids travel through earth’s atmosphere every day.
- When multiple meteors travel into earth's atmosphere at the same time, it is called a meteor shower.
- Meteors are named for the places where they were found.
Asteroids are relatively small, rocky objects that orbit the Sun, like the rest of the objects in our solar system. They are mostly found in a ring between Mars and Jupiter called the Kuiper belt. They are made of things from ice and stone to metal. "Asteroids are remnants of the early solar system, when planets were forming from collisions of smaller bodies".
- Asteroids can contain a lot of precious metal.
- Some people call asteroids planetoids, and others minor planets.
- A lot of bigger asteroids can become moons.
So, as you can see, there are noticeably big differences between comets meteors and asteroids. Though they may seem synonymous, they are very clearly not.