The above image is of Comet Atlas, which is a comet that has been getting closer and much, much brighter over the past few weeks. If it doesn’t fizzle out, Comet Atlas will be able to be seen by the naked eye in as little time as a couple of weeks, at places without much light pollution.
Comets are indeed very pretty to look at in the night sky, but sometimes we ponder the question of where they come from. It turns out that these balls of gas, dust, rock, and ice largely come from an area on the edge of our solar system; the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. Haven’t heard of these two before? They mostly consist of clouds of small, icy bodies. Sometimes, these objects get gravitationally pulled a little too close to the rest of the solar system, and this changes their orbit slightly which passes by the inner solar system and straight into the Sun, where it’ll never be seen again. However, most of the time, we are able to spot them through binoculars and telescopes or even just our eyes, and we call them comets.
The Kuiper Belt is closer to us than the Oort Cloud, but the Oort Cloud’s existence is based merely on speculation and we don’t really know how big it is, or exactly how far away it lies. However, we believe that long period comets, comets that take 200 years or more to complete one orbit, come from the Oort Cloud, and short period comets mostly come from the Kuiper Belt.
The Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud were created when the solar system first formed. The remaining gas, dust, and rocks that didn’t coalese into planets were slingshotted away by gravitational force and formed parts of these spherical clouds. Some material was too far away from any of the planets, but not too far to escape the solar system, so it continues to reside in the Kuiper Belt.
Both the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud are constantly changing and even diminishing, since objects continually collide with one another and turn into smaller, dustier fragments, then get blown away by the solar wind. Some comets burn up on their orbit into the inner solar system, and never return. Though we’re not sure of all the details yet, it’s still fascinating to find that beyond the commonly known orbits of our planets, we are surrounded by bits of our solar system’s nursery.