Asteroids and comets are believed to be ancient remnants of the earliest years of the formation of our solar system more than four billion years ago. From the beginning of life on Earth to the recent spectacular impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter, these so-called “small bodies” play a key role in many of the fundamental processes that have shaped the planetary neighborhood in which we live.
Comets are bodies of ice, rock, and organic compounds that can be several miles in diameter. Comets are thought to originate from a region beyond the orbits of the outermost planets. Scientists believe that gravitational perturbations periodically jar comets out of this population, setting these “dirty snowballs” on orbital courses that bring them closer to the Sun. Some, called long-period comets, are in elliptical orbits of the Sun that take them far out beyond the planets and back. Others, called short-period comets, travel in shorter orbits nearer the Sun.
When comets venture into the more intense sunlight of the inner solar system, the ices in the comet nucleus begin to vaporize and fall away. The evolved gas forms a tenuous atmosphere around the nucleus called a coma, while the dust previously in the nucleus forms a tail that can be thousands of miles long and sometimes can be seen from Earth. While striking the early Earth billions of years ago, comets are thought to have created major changes to Earth’s early oceans, atmosphere, and climate, and may have delivered the first carbon-based molecules to our planet, triggering the process of the origins of life.
Most asteroids are made of rock, but some are composed of metal, mostly nickel and iron. They range in size from small boulders to objects that are hundreds of miles in diameter. A small portion of the asteroid population may be burned-out comets whose ices have evaporated away and been blown off into space. Almost all asteroids are part of the Main Asteroid Belt, with orbits in the vast region of space between Mars and Jupiter.
Some asteroids pass very close to Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Scientists have found evidence that asteroids have hit our planet in the past. Usually, asteroids and smaller debris called meteoroids are too small to survive the passage through Earth’s atmosphere. When these burn up on their descent, they leave a beautiful trail of light known as a meteor or “shooting star.” Larger asteroids occasionally crash into Earth, however, and create craters, such as Arizona’s kilometer-wide Meteor Crater near Flagstaff. Another impact site off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, which is buried by ocean sediments today, is believed to be a record of the event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Fortunately for us, these big asteroid impacts are rare. A smaller rocky meteoroid or comet less than 100 yards in diameter is believed to have entered the atmosphere over the Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908. The resulting shockwave knocked down trees for hundreds of square miles.