Categories: Guide to Space

What Are Comet Tails?

Comets are renowned for their big beautiful tails that stretch across the sky. But what’s in those things, anyway? And how can comets get multiple tails?

In the past, humans generally used one of two greetings for comets:
1. Dear God, what is that thing? Terrible omens! Surely we will all die in fire.
2. Dear God, what is that thing? Great omens! Surely we will all have a big party… where we all die in fire?

For example, the appearance of what came to be known as Halley’s comet in 1066 was seen as a bad omen for King Harold II. Conversely, it was a good omen for William the Conqueror.

Because of their tails and transitory nature, comets were long thought to be products of the Earth’s atmosphere. It wasn’t until the 1500s, when Tycho Brahe used parallax to determine a comet’s distance. He realized that they were Solar System objects, like planets.

So, good news, we no longer regard them as omens and everyone stopped panicking. Right? Wrong. When Comet Halley approached Earth in 1910, astronomers detected cyanide gas in its tail. French astronomer Camille Flammarion was quoted as saying the gas could “impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.” This caused a great deal of hysteria. Many bought gas masks and “comet pills” to protect themselves.

With the rise of photographic astronomy, it was found that comets often have two types of tails. A bright tail composed of ionized gas, and a dimmer one composed of dust particles. The ion tail always points away from the Sun. It’s actually being pushed away from the comet by the solar wind.

Comets often develop two tails as they near the sun – a curved dust tail and straight, ion tail. Credit: NASA

We now know that a comet’s ion tail contains “volatiles” such as water, methane, ammonia and carbon dioxide. These volatiles are frozen near the comet’s surface, and as they approach the Sun, they warm and become gaseous. This also causes dust on the comet’s surface to stream away. The heating of a comet by the Sun is not uniform.

Because of a comet’s irregular shape and rotation, some parts of the surface can be heated by sunlight, while other parts remain cold. In some cases this can mean that comets can have multiple tails, which creates amazing effects where different regions of a comet stream off volatiles.

Comet Lovejoy passing behind green oxygen and sodium airglow layers on December 22, 2011 seen from the space station. Credit: NASA/Dan Burbank

These ion tails can be quite large, and some have been observed to be nearly 4 times the distance of the Earth from the Sun. And even though they fill a great volume, they are also pretty diffuse. If you condensed a comet’s tail down to the density of water, it wouldn’t even fill a swimming pool.

We also now know that there isn’t a clear dividing line between comets and asteroids. It’s not the case the comets are dirty snowballs and asteroids are dry rocks. There is a range of variation, and asteroids can gain dusty or gaseous tails and take on a comet-like appearance. In addition, we’ve also found comets orbiting other stars, known as exocomets.

And finally one last fact, the term comet comes from the Latin cometa, which indicated a hairy star.

So, what’s your favorite comet? Tell us in the comets below. And if you like what you see, come check out our Patreon page and find out how you can get these videos early while helping us bring you more great content!

Brian Koberlein

Brian Koberlein is an astrophysicist and science writer with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. He writes about astronomy and astrophysics on his blog. You can follow him on YouTube, and on Twitter @BrianKoberlein.

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