There is a vast proliferation of rocks, ice and celestial debris that freely roams the solar system. These objects are far too small to be termed planets and are generally referred to as comets, asteroids and meteors.
Clearly each has a different definition, so what exactly is the difference between Asteroids, Meteors and Comets?
Comets were once believed by ancient astronomers to foretell significant events such as the death of princesses or the result of coming battles and wars.
Modern astronomers now understand that comets are tiny bodies that posses a coma, a nebulous atmosphere around the nucleus. This is what gives the comet or a blurry or fuzzy appearance.
Comets are mostly made of ice and dust and small particles of rock. Most are estimated to have been formed 4.6 billion years ago.
It is easy to spot most comets because they have a tail made up of sublimed gas and dust and when they near the sun they exhibit a glowing ion tail.
The most distinctive features of the comet are its nucleus, coma, dust tail and ion tail. Scientists believe that there are up to a billion comets in the solar system, the most famous of which is Hayley’s comet.
Asteroids are rocky and airless leftovers from the formation of planets in the solar system. The name asteroid meant star and was first coined by Astronomer William Herschel in 1802. They are made of dark rock or rubble and bright solid combinations of metal.
The vast majority can be found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
It is worth noting that the total mass of asteroids is less than the earth’s moon. However, this does not stop the larger of these bodies from being referred to as minor planets or planetoids, since the very large ones can approach the size of a dwarf planet.
The largest asteroid is Ceres, which was promoted to a dwarf planet in 2006, same as Pluto. Most asteroids resemble giant space potato. It is anticipated that asteroids could serve as gas stations in space when humans start colonizing space.
It has been theorised that humans could break down the water in asteroids into hydrogen and oxygen, making rocket fuel for space exploration and precious air for space breathing.
Meteors are formed when comets or meteorites vaporizes after entering the earth’s atmosphere. This is caused by air friction which makes them rapidly heat up. A meteor produces a fiery flash and a streak of light brighter than Venus when it burns up. This is what most people call a shooting star.
Meteoroids tend to be much more dense because they tend to be made of iron, stones and rock and a combination of iron and rocks.
The larger ones do not vaporize completely when they enter Earth’s atmosphere. As such these are potential hazards to life on Earth, and can pose a significant risk to our survival. Perhaps the most famous meteoroid is the one that wiped out the dinosaurs hundreds of millions of years ago.
The Earth occasionally passes through a trail of debris left behind by a comet, giving rise to a meteor shower. A famous example of this is the Perseid meteor shower and is considered one of the most spectacular annual occurrences.
Fun fact: millions of meteors enter the Earth’s atmosphere daily.