Oort Cloud & Vicinity .

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The Oort Cloud:
Where comets come from.

Figure courtesy of JPL.

The giant cometary sphere surrounding the solar system is named the Oort cloud, after Jan Oort who postulated its existence in 1950. Comets arrive in the solar system from all directions, often from as far away as 100,000 AU. An AU, or Astronomical Unit, is the distance from earth to the sun. Pluto, for comparison, is 39 AU from the sun.

Comets are oddly shaped lumps of ice and rock, often only a few miles across. When comets get close to the Sun, the nucleus begins to evaporate. Released gas and dust form the coma, which can grow to the diameter of a giant planet. Jets of coma form tails that may extend millions of miles, and be visible from Earth.

Some comets come from a closer region called the Kuiper Belt, which is located past the orbit of Pluto. Kuiper Belt objects are the source of the Jupiter family, a group of comets whose orbits take them between Jupiter and the sun in a short period of time (3-10 years). Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which became trapped in a gravity well and plunged into Jupiter's atmosphere in 1993, may have been a member of the Jupiter family of comets.

The celestial sphere of the Oort Cloud
encompassess all these delights and more.

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