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The Difference Between Meteors, Comets, and Asteroids

Updated on July 7, 2012
Our beautiful universe
Our beautiful universe | Source

Many people wonder what the difference is between a comet, an asteroid and a meteor.

This article will help you to understand which ones orbit around the sun, which leave trails of space dust behind them, and which ones land on Earth.

Comets, asteroids, and meteoroids are very similar in the way that they all float through space and usually orbit around the sun. The major differences between them include size, whether they have tails, and their position in space.

Hale-Bopp Comet


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What is a Comet?

A comet is a small, spherical body that orbits around the sun, much like our planet. Most comets are about 10 miles in diameter and can be much bigger.

Unlike other planets, their orbit is much more elliptical and less circular.

When a comet is near the sun, it has a trail behind it that scientists call a "coma". This illusion is caused by the gasses that surround the comet (much like its own atmosphere). As the comet travels through space, these gasses as well as dust are pulled off of the comet by solar wind.

Famous comets include Halley's Comet and the Hale-Bopp Comet. Halley's Comet is visible to the naked, human eye and can be seen every 75-76 years. The comet was named after Edmond Halley, who figured out how frequent we would see the comet.

The Hale-Bopp comet (or Great Comet) is the brightest comet known to man. It was discovered in 1995, but later was speculated to be seen by ancient Egyptians. Hieroglyphics indicate that there was a bright star (nhh-star) that accompanied the dead pharaoh to heaven.





What is a Meteor?

A meteor is a meteoroid that has entered the Earth's atmosphere. A meteoroid is a small rock (less than ten yards in circumference) that float in our solar system.

Once the meteoroid enters Earth's atmosphere, it burns off a layer of minerals and becomes a meteor.

Meteors that hit or land on the Earth's surface are then referred to as meteorites.

Meteor showers are popular events that happen multiple times throughout the year. These showers are often thought to happen due to asteroids or just a strange group of meteoroids passing the Earth, but meteoroids do not behave that way. And remember, a "meteor" is something that has passed through our atmosphere.

A meteor shower is caused by a coma of a comet. If a large comet travels through the path of the Earth's orbit, the Earth must then travel through it on its rotation around the sun. The debris from the comet then passes through our atmosphere and burns up, creating a meteor shower that we can see with the naked eye.

Trojan Asteroid Orbiting Jupiter


What is an Asteroid?

An asteroid is a larger meteoroid that orbits the sun in our solar system. Because of their size and behavior, people sometimes refer to them as "minor planets".

Asteroids are made up of rock and sometimes metal debris that has clumped together over time.

Asteroids also have "comas" or tails that trail behind them.

Most asteroids are found in the asteroid belt, which orbits around the sun between Jupiter and Mars. When an asteroid begins to orbit around a planet, like Jupiter, it is called a Trojan Asteroid.


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    • Batangas profile image

      Haime 2 years ago from Batangas

      thank you for additional info :)

    • jozo matic profile image

      Jozo Matić 4 years ago from Split

      Hi Brittany, your articles are so useful and interesting. I'm glad I can read them. ;)

    • profile image

      sugar gerardo 5 years ago

      thank you for sharing this i hardly knew the differences

    • QudsiaP1 profile image

      QudsiaP1 5 years ago

      Thank you for sharing this; I hardly knew the difference before. :)

    • melbel profile image

      Melanie Shebel 5 years ago from Midwest USA

      This is REALLY awesome! Totally sharing this! Thank you so much for answering my question so awesomely! :)

    • brittanytodd profile image

      Brittany Kennedy 5 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      Thank you so much, ChaplinSpeaks, Domco, and Cloud Explorer! I really enjoyed writing this one and loved learning about the differences through research. Thanks again for your comments (and for sharing, CloudExplorer--it's nice to meet you too!).

    • CloudExplorer profile image

      Mike Pugh 5 years ago from New York City

      Wow this hub is quite astronomical in its info, you went the extra mile providing such useful and educational information about the differences between asteroids, meteors and comets.

      I actually miss learning about all this stuff in grade school when I learned earth science, this is definitely a blast from the educations past for me.

      Nicely written and very well presented as well. Voted up on all levels except for funny, and this one is definitely getting shared everywhere I possible can Brittany. Cool Stuff!

      Oh and Its nice to have met you digitally on hubpages.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 5 years ago from UK

      Brilliant definitions and easy to access explanations on these cosmic debris, Brittany. Love you lay -out and clutter free design too. Impressive. Voted up, of course!

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 5 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      I also did not know about meteor showers coming from comet tails, or how the name changed for meteoroids as they land on Earth. Very cool hub with awesome pictures!

    • brittanytodd profile image

      Brittany Kennedy 5 years ago from Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

      Thank you, Teresa, cclitgirl, and Window Pain! I didn't know that meteor showers were caused by comet tails before I wrote this hub. It was so fun to make and I appreciate your comments. Mahalo!

    • Window Pain profile image

      Window Pain 5 years ago

      You should add mention of the Oort Cloud to your Comet definition.

      Beautiful, First-class Hubpage! Love the big, clear photos and mood-setting graphic lines! Really cool.

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 5 years ago from Western NC

      I learned a few things on this hub! Before now, I always thought I knew about comets, meteors and asteroids, but I didn't realize I wouldn't have been able to give a good definition of each. Reading this hub fixed that! Thanks for this awesome information!!

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Great explanation of the three types of space rock! I didn't know meteor showers were from the debris of the tail of comets. Love the capsule dividerss!!!