Comets are small, fragile, irregularly shaped bodies composed of a mixture of non-volatile grains and frozen gases. They usually follow highly elongated paths around the Sun. Most become visible, even in telescopes, only when they get near enough to the Sun for the Sun's radiation to start subliming the volatile gases, which in turn blow away small bits of the solid material. These materials expand into an enormous escaping atmosphere called the coma, which becomes far bigger than a planet, and they are forced back into long tails of dust and gas by radiation and charged particles flowing from the Sun. Comets are cold bodies, and we see them only because the gases in their comae and tails fluoresce in sunlight (somewhat akin to a fluorescent light) and because of sunlight reflected from the solids. Comets are regular members of the solar system family, gravitationally bound to the Sun. They are generally believed to be made of material, originally in the outer part of the solar system, that didn't get incorporated into the planets -- leftover debris, if you will. It is the very fact that they are thought to be composed of such unchanged primitive material that makes them extremely interesting to scientists who wish to learn about conditions during the earliest period of the solar system.
Comets are very small in size relative to planets. Their average diameters usually range from 750 meters (2,460 feet) or less to about 20 kilometers (12 miles). Recently, evidence has been found for much larger distant comets, perhaps having diameters of 300 kilometers (186 miles) or more, but these sizes are still small compared to planets. Planets are usually more or less spherical in shape, usually bulging slightly at the equator. Comets are irregular in shape, with their longest dimension often twice the shortest. (See Appendix A, Table 3.) The best evidence suggests that comets are very fragile. Their tensile strength (the stress they can take without being pulled apart) appears to be only about 1,000 dynes/cm^2 (about 2 lb./ft.^2). You could take a big piece of cometary material and simply pull it in two with your bare hands, something like a poorly compacted snowball.
Comets, of course, must obey the same universal laws of motion as do all other bodies. Where the orbits of planets around the Sun are nearly circular, however, the orbits of comets are quite elongated. Nearly 100 known comets have periods (the time it takes them to make one complete trip around the Sun) five to seven Earth years in length. Their farthest point from the Sun (their aphelion) is near Jupiter's orbit, with the closest point (perihelion) being much nearer to Earth. A few comets like Halley have their aphelions beyond Neptune (which is six times as far from the Sun as Jupiter). Other comets come from much farther out yet, and it may take them thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years to make one complete orbit around the Sun. In all cases, if a comet approaches near to Jupiter, it is strongly attracted by the gravitational pull of that giant among planets, and its orbit is perturbed (changed), sometimes radically. This is part of what happened to Shoemaker-Levy 9. (See Sections 2 and 4 for more details.)
The nucleus of a comet, which is its solid, persisting part, has been called an icy conglomerate, a dirty snowball, and other colorful but even less accurate descriptions. Certainly a comet nucleus contains silicates akin to some ordinary Earth rocks in composition, probably mostly in very small grains and pieces. Perhaps the grains are glued together into larger pieces by the frozen gases. A nucleus appears to include complex carbon compounds and perhaps some free carbon, which make it very black in color. Most notably, at least when young, it contains many frozen gases, the most common being ordinary water. In the low pressure conditions of space, water sublimes, that is, it goes directly from solid to gas -- just like dry ice does on Earth. Water probably makes up 75-80% of the volatile material in most comets. Other common ices are carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), and formaldehyde (H2CO). Volatiles and solids appear to be fairly well mixed throughout the nucleus of a new comet approaching the Sun for the first time. As a comet ages from many trips close to the Sun, there is evidence that it loses most of its ices, or at least those ices anywhere near the nucleus surface, and becomes just a very fragile old rock in appearance, indistinguishable at a distance from an asteroid.
A comet nucleus is small, so its gravitational pull is very weak. You could run and jump completely off of it (if you could get traction). The escape velocity is only about 1 meter (3 feet) per second (compared to 11 km/s--7 miles/second--on Earth). As a result, the escaping gases and the small solid particles (dust) that they drag with them never fall back to the nucleus surface. Radiation pressure, the pressure of sunlight, forces the dust particles back into a dust tail in the direction opposite to the Sun. A comet's tail can be tens of millions of kilometers in length when seen in the reflected sunlight. The gas molecules are torn apart by solar ultraviolet light, often losing electrons and becoming electrically charged fragments or ions. The ions interact with the wind of charged particles flowing out from the Sun and are forced back into an ion tail, which again can extend for millions of kilometers in the direction opposite to the Sun. These ions can be seen as they fluoresce in sunlight.
Every comet then really has two tails, a dust tail and an ion tail. If the comet is faint, only one or neither tail may be detectable, and the comet may appear just as a fuzzy blob of light, even in a big telescope. The density of material in the coma and tails is very low, lower than the best vacuum that can be produced in most laboratories. In 1986, the Giotto spacecraft flew right through Comet Halley only a few hundred kilometers from the nucleus. Though the coma and tails of a comet may extend for tens of millions of kilometers and become easily visible to the naked eye in Earth's night sky, as Comet West's were in 1976, the entire phenomenon is the product of a tiny nucleus only a few kilometers across.
Because comet nuclei are so small, they are quite difficult to study from Earth. They always appear at most as a point of light in even the largest telescope, if not lost completely in the glare of the coma. A great deal was learned when the European Space Agency, the Soviet Union, and the Japanese sent spacecraft to fly by Comet Halley in 1986. For the first time, actual images of an active nucleus were obtained and the composition of the dust and gases flowing from it was directly measured. Early in the next century, the Europeans plan to send a spacecraft called Rosetta to rendezvous with a comet and watch it closely for a long period of time. Even this sophisticated mission is not likely to tell scientists a great deal about the interior structure of comets, however. Therefore, the opportunity to reconstruct the events that occurred when Shoemaker-Levy 9 split and to study what occurred when fragments were destroyed in Jupiter's atmosphere is uniquely important (see Section 4).
Table of Contents Section 2