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13: Comets and Asteroids - Debris of the Solar System

Hundreds of smaller members of the solar system—asteroids and comets—are known to have crossed Earth’s orbit in the past, and many others will do so in centuries ahead. What could we do if we knew a few years in advance that one of these bodies would hit Earth?

To understand the early history of life on Earth, scientists study ancient fossils. To reconstruct the early history of the solar system, we need cosmic fossils—materials that formed when our system was very young. However, reconstructing the early history of the solar system by looking just at the planets is almost as difficult as determining the circumstances of human birth by merely looking at an adult. Instead, we turn to the surviving remnants of the creation process—ancient but smaller objects in our cosmic neighborhood. Asteroids are rocky or metallic and contain little volatile (easily evaporated) material. Comets are small icy objects that contain frozen water and other volatile materials but with solid grains mixed in. In the deep freeze beyond Neptune, we also have a large reservoir of material unchanged since the formation of the solar system, as well as a number of dwarf planets.

  • 13.1: Asteroids
    The solar system includes many objects that are much smaller than the planets and their larger moons. The rocky ones are generally called asteroids. Ceres is the largest asteroid; about 15 are larger than 250 kilometers and about 100,000 are larger than 1 kilometer. Most are in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The presence of asteroid families in the belt indicates that many asteroids are the remnants of ancient collisions and fragmentation.
  • 13.2: Asteroids and Planetary Defense
    Near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), and near-Earth objects (NEOs) in general, are of interest in part because of their potential to hit Earth. They are on unstable orbits, and on timescales of 100 million years, they will either impact one of the terrestrial planets or the Sun, or be ejected. Most of them probably come from the asteroid belt, but some may be dead comets. NASA’s Spaceguard Survey has found 90% of the NEAs larger than 1 kilometer, with none on a collision course with Earth.
  • 13.3: The "Long-Haired" Comets
    Halley first showed that some comets are on closed orbits and return periodically to swing around the Sun. The heart of a comet is its nucleus, a few kilometers in diameter and composed of volatiles and solids. Whipple first suggested this “dirty snowball” model in 1950; it has been confirmed by spacecraft studies of several comets. As the nucleus approaches the Sun, its volatiles evaporate (perhaps in localized jets or explosions) to form the comet’s head or atmosphere.
  • 13.4: The Origin and Fate of Comets and Related Objects
    Oort proposed in 1950 that long-period comets are derived from what we now call the Oort cloud, which surrounds the Sun out to about 50,000 AU (near the limit of the Sun’s gravitational sphere of influence) and contains between \(10^{12}\) and \(10^{13}\) comets. Comets also come from the Kuiper belt, a disk-shaped region beyond the orbit of Neptune, extending to 50 AU from the Sun. Comets are primitive bodies left over from the formation of the outer solar system.
  • 13.E: Comets and Asteroids - Debris of the Solar System (Exercises)

Thumbnail: Comet Hale-Bopp was one of the most attractive and easily visible comets of the twentieth century. It is shown here as it appeared in the sky in March 1997. You can see the comet’s long blue ion tail and the shorter white dust tail. You will learn about these two types of comet tails, and how they form, in this chapter. (credit: modification of work by ESO/E. Slawik).