Taking a trip to outer space: What is a comet?

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Weekend Meteorologist Joseph Dames

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Although there are a ton of fascinating topics about our atmosphere and the weather that we experience from day to day, this topic is about a soaring object out in space. We are going to learn about comets! In fact, there may be a comet soaring out there for you to check right now. The latest comet in view for the United States is comet NEOWISE (July 2020). This comet is one of the brightest that we’ve seen on earth since 1997! It’s not very often that we get to experience the visual bliss of a soaring comet. Are you ready to learn about comets?


A comet has been known as a snowball in outer space. Why? It is made of ice, dust, gases and rock. They are leftover particles from the formation of the solar system that occurred a long time ago. These chunks of matter are essentially floating around space and eventually orbit the sun just like the planets and asteroids. However, comets, they tend to have a large orbital path. They likely will show up once in a lifetime. That means, if you get a chance to see a comet, it is a very special moment and experience.

What is the difference between a comet, meteor and asteroid?

An asteroid is a rock that also orbits the sun. There are asteroid belts in space that may be the spawn of a passing asteroid. From time to time they may travel near the earth. If an asteroid collides with another and a piece of that asteroid breaks off, it is called a meteoroid. A meteoroid is essentially a piece of an asteroid, also a rock. If it enters the earths atmosphere and burns up, you get a meteor. If for some reason that meteor doesn’t vaporize completely and a piece is found on the earth’s surface, it’s known as a meteorite!

Where does a comet come in? Well a comet is much larger and is made of not only rock, but ice and other material. It also orbits the sun, but is on a different path than those of an asteroid. It is also much larger than an asteroid.


Let’s learn about some of the elements of a comet that you may see in photos or in person. As you can tell, a comet looks like a burning ball soaring through the dark sky. In fact, when the comet soars closer to the sun, it starts to melt the ice and spew gases out to give the appearance that you see. Each part of the comet has a title:

Nucleus: The core of the comet head.

Coma: Particles and gases make a cloud around the nucleus, called a coma.

Dust and Gas tail:  Sunlight pushes dust particles very small dust particles away from the head creating a dust tail. A second tail is made of electrically charged molecules of gas. A tail will look longer the closer it is to the sun.


Comet NEOWISE as seen from North Plains. (Jose Julian Araya)
Comet NEOWISE as seen from North Plains. (Jose Julian Araya)

Why can we see comets if they’re so far away? We can spot a comet because of the sunlight! Dust driven from a comet’s nucleus reflects sunlight as it travels through space. You know what else is the reason? Just like the gas tail, certain gases, when heated by the sun, produce light of different colors.

Now with all that in mind, we of course, need the right conditions in our atmosphere to see a comet. We can’t be stuck under a layer of clouds or around a bunch of light. Knowing the weather forecast is always an exceptional tool to leading one to a position to get a good view of a passing comet. Now that you know a little more about comets, you can share the information with your friends!

Courtesy: Pat Bailey

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Information from NASA contributed to this article

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