An Introduction to Famous Comets

When you look up in the sky, it is considered a great honor to catch sight of a comet. Over time, these rare occurrences are marked on calendars, as some will only make an appearance once in a lifetime (if that). To gain a better understanding of where these astronomical wonders originate, as well as lesser known facts, consider the information below:

What is a Comet?

The small bodies of matter found in the Solar System that orbit the Sun are called a comet. When caught by the human eye, their appearance showcases what looks like a tail. This is an effect that takes places due to exposure to solar radiation that touches upon the nucleus of the comet. Overall, the center of a comet is really comprised of loose pocket of dust, ice, and small particles of rocks. They can measure a couple of kilometers or stretch across the sky tens of kilometers.

A comet begins its journey in the outer solar system and becomes thrown close to the Sun when caught in the power of gravity given off by surrounding planets and stars located close by. All comets possess different orbital periods, which can start at a couple of years to about 100 years. Some can last up to thousands of years, while a select few only have a chance to pass through the inner Solar System for only one time.

These ‘short-period’ comets are believed to originate in the Kuiper Belt , located farther out past the orbit of Neptune, while ‘long-period’ comets are thought to begin much farther away from the Sun , in a cloud called the Oort cloud that is comprised of debris that was a result of condensation that took place in the solar nebula.

To date, there are more than 3,000 comets known to scientists as of November 2007. About a couple of hundred of them turned out to be short-period comets. The number of these entities is increasing over the years at a steady pace and it is believed that the total comet population is grossly underestimated. Many feel that a deposit of comet-like bodies located in the outer solar system could reach numbers of up to one trillion. To get an idea of famous comets that have made the headlines over time, consider the following:


July 23rd, 1995 , the uniquely large comet with a brightness that caught the eye of Alan Hale of New Mexico and Thomas Bopp of Arizona was spotted just outside of Jupiter’s orbit. After careful scrutiny of images associated with the Hubble Space Telescope, the brightness of the comet was linked to just how big it was. For instance, the nuclei of the majority of comet out there measure around 1.6 to 3.2 km (or one to two miles) across. However, Hale-Bopp was estimated to measure 40 km (or 25 miles) across.

The brightness was so significant that it was spotted throughout city skies filled with light. In recorded history, it has captured the honor of becoming one of the most viewed comets of all time. It also holds the record for longest amount of time that the naked eye could catch sight of this beauty. It lasted for an amazingly long 19 months. Unfortunately, this great feat will not repeat again for another 2,400 years.