Ever Wonder What the Difference is Between a Comet and a Meteor?

Comet Image Gallery

A comet is a small celestial object made mostly of ice and dust that, when close enough to the sun, displays a visible coma (a fuzzy outline) and sometimes a tail. They typically orbit the sun in elongated paths and can be visible for days. A meteor, also known as a shooting star or falling star, is the visible streak of light that occurs when a meteoroid (small piece of debris in space) enters the Earth’s atmosphere and vaporizes. Meteors are typically much smaller than comets and are only visible for a few seconds.

Comets are unpredictable and their appearances can’t be determined with certainty. However, astronomers use observations and mathematical models to make predictions about when a specific comet may return to the inner solar system and be visible from Earth. This prediction will be refined as the comet’s orbit is better determined through additional observations. A list of known comets can be found at the NASA PDS: Small Bodies Node webpage.

Meteor Shower
A Meteor Shower – Note the Many Meteors

Meteor showers are caused by the Earth passing through the debris trail left by a comet or asteroid. The timing and frequency of meteor showers can be predicted based on the orbit of the object that created the debris trail. For example, the Perseid meteor shower occurs annually in August, because the Earth’s orbit takes it through the debris trail left by comet Swift-Tuttle. The exact dates and peak activity of a meteor shower can also be influenced by various factors, such as the strength of the shower, and the position of the Moon, which can make observing more difficult. Astronomers and astronomical organizations such as the International Meteor Organization (IMO) or the American Meteor Society (AMS) will generally provide predictions for the major meteor showers of the year.

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