The Space & Beyond Blog

What is the difference between asteroids and comets?

Asteroids and comets are more alike than astronomers originally thought.

By David Eicher, Jake Parks

asteroid 243 Ida

DIRTY ICEBALL. Comet C/2001 Q4 NEAT typifies the kind of soft coma and glowing tail that amateur astronomers hope to glimpse through their telescopes. Astronomers using the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, caught this view of NEAT May 7, 2004. Photo: NASA/NOAO/NSF/T. Rector, Z. Levay, and L. Frattare

Comet 9P/Tmpel 1

WHAMMO! Comet 9P/Tempel 1 dances with light moments after the Deep Impact spacecraft impactor’s strike into the nucleus July 4, 2005. Comets and asteroids are both leftover bits of debris from the primordial solar nebula, some 4.6 billion years ago. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UMD

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The Hubble Space Telescope's image of asteroid 4 Vesta

HOLY ASTEROID. In 1997, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered a huge impact crater on the asteroid 4 Vesta. The crater spans 285 miles, a significant portion of Vesta’s 325-mile diameter. The image at left shows an HST view; at center, a color-coded version clearly reveals the crater’s contours; and at right, a 3-D computer model shows Vesta’s surface. Photo: Ben Zellner/Peter Thomas/NASA

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