Chapter 13 Comets and Asteroids: Debris of the Solar System

13.5 Key Concepts and Summary, Further Explorations, Websites

Key Concepts and Summary

Oort proposed in 1950 that long-period comets are derived from what we now call the Oort cloud, which surrounds the Sun out to about 50,000 AU (near the limit of the Sun’s gravitational sphere of influence) and contains between 1012 and 1013 comets. Comets also come from the Kuiper belt, a disk-shaped region beyond the orbit of Neptune, extending to 50 AU from the Sun. Comets are primitive bodies left over from the formation of the outer solar system. Once a comet is diverted into the inner solar system, it typically survives no more than a few thousand perihelion passages before losing all its volatiles. Some comets die spectacular deaths: Shoemaker-Levy 9, for example, broke into 20 pieces before colliding with Jupiter in 1994.

For Further Exploration



Asphang, E. “The Small Planets.” Scientific American (May 2000): 46. On asteroids, including results from the NEAR mission.

Beatty, J. “The Falcon’s Wild Flight.” Sky & Telescope (September 2006): 34. On the Japanese mission to asteroid Itakawa.

Beatty, J. “NEAR Falls for Eros.” Sky & Telescope (May 2001): 35. On the first landing on an asteroid.

Betz, E. “Dawn Mission Reveals Dwarf Planet Ceres.” Astronomy (January 2016): 44. First images and discoveries.

Binzel, R. “A New Century for Asteroids.” Sky & Telescope (July 2001): 44. Nice overview.

Boslaugh, M. “In Search of Death-Plunge Asteroids.” Astronomy (July 2015): 28. On existing and proposed programs to search for Earth-crossing asteroids.

Cooke, B. “Fatal Attraction.” Astronomy (May 2006): 46. On near-Earth asteroid Apophis, its orbit, and what we can learn from it.

Durda, D. “Odd Couples.” Astronomy (December 2005): 54. On binary asteroids.

Durda, D. “All in the Family.” Astronomy (February 1993): 36. Discusses asteroid families.

Oberg, J. “2013’s Historic Russian Meteorite Fall” Astronomy (June 2012): 18. On the Chelyabinsk event.

Sheppard, S. “Dancing with the Planets.” Sky & Telescope (June 2016): 16. On Trojan asteroids that “follow” planets like Jupiter.

Talcott, R. “Galileo Views Gaspra.” Astronomy (February 1992): 52.

Yeomans, D. “Japan Visits an Asteroid.” Astronomy (March 2006): 32. On the Hayabusa probe exploration of asteroid Itakawa.

Zimmerman, R. “Ice Cream Sundaes and Mashed Potatoes.” Astronomy (February 1999): 54. On the NEAR mission.


Aguirre, E. “The Great Comet of 1997.” Sky & Telescope (July 1997): 50. On Comet Hale-Bopp.

Bakich, M. “How to Observe Comets.” Astronomy (December 2009): 50. A guide for amateur astronomers.

Gore, R. “Halley’s Comet ’86: Much More Than Met the Eye.” National Geographic (December 1986): 758. (Also, the March 1987 issue of Sky & Telescope was devoted to what we learned from Halley’s Comet in 1986.)

Hale, A. “Hale-Bopp Plus Ten.” Astronomy (July 2005): 76. The co-discoverer of a naked-eye comet tells the story of the discovery and what followed.

Jewett, D. “Mysterious Travelers: Comet Science.” Sky & Telescope (December. 2013): 18. Nice summary of what we know about comets and questions we have.

Rao, J. “How Often do Bright Comets Appear?” Sky & Telescope (November 2013): 30. Nice summary of bright comets in the last century and what factors make a comet spectacular in our skies.

Sekanina, Z. “Sungrazing Comets.” Astronomy (March 2006): 36.

Sheppard, S. “Beyond the Kuiper Belt.” Sky & Telescope (March 2015): 26. On Sedna and the Oort cloud.

Stern, S. “Evolution at the Edge.” Astronomy (September 2005): 46. How comet nuclei evolve with time.

Talcott, R. “Rendezvous with an Evolving Comet [Rosetta at Comet 67P/C-G].” Astronomy (September 2015): 44.

Tytell, D. “Deep Impact’s Hammer Throw.” Sky & Telescope (October 2006): 34. On the mission that threw a probe at the nucleus of a comet. See also (June 2005): 40.

Weissman, P. “A Comet Tale.” Sky & Telescope (February 2006): 36. A nice review of what we know and don’t know about the physical nature of comets.



Dawn Mission: Discover more about this mission to the largest asteroids.

NEAR-Shoemaker Mission: Review background information and see great images from the mission that went by Mathilde and Eros.


Deep Impact Mission:

Kuiper Belt: David Jewitt of the University of Hawaii keeps track of the objects that have been discovered.

Missions to Comets: Read about NASA’s current and past missions to comets.

Stardust Mission: Learn about this mission to collect a sample of a comet and bring it back to Earth.



Sweating the Small Stuff: The Fear and Fun of Near-Earth Asteroids: Harvard Observatory Night Lecture by Jose-Luis Galache (1:18:07).

Unveiling Dwarf Planet Ceres: A vonKarman Lecture by Dr. Carol Raymond, Oct. 2015, also includes Vesta results (1:18:38).


Great Comets, Comets in General, and Comet ISON: Talk by Frank Summers, Space Telescope Science Institute (1:01:10).

Press Conference on the Impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter: Day 2 after impact; July 17, 1994; with the discoverers and Heidi Hammel (1:22:29).

Rosetta: The Story So Far: Royal Astronomical Society Lecture by Dr. Ian Wright (1:00:29).


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