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A comet's tail can be millions of kilometers in length, but the amount of matter it contains can be held in a large bookbag.

Scientists believe that comets are made up of material left over from when the Sun and the planets were formed. They think that about 100,000 million comets orbit the Sun. Some comets orbit the Sun like planets. Their orbits take them very close to and very far away from the Sun.

Comet orbits
A comet is made of dirty ice, dust, and gas. When a comet gets close to the Sun, part of the ice starts to melt. The solar winds then push the dust and gas released by the melting ice away from the comet. This forms the comet's tail. Every time a comet comes close to the Sun, a part of it melts. Over time, it will completely disappear.

A comet does not give off any light of its own. What seems to be light from the comet is actually a reflection of our Sun's light. Sunlight bounces off the comet's ice particles in the same way light is reflected by a mirror.

A few comets come close enough to the Earth for us to see them with our eyes. Halley's Comet, for example, can be seen from Earth every 76 years.

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A Question

Since comets have no light of their own, how are we able to see them?

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The StarChild site is a service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA/ GSFC.

StarChild Authors: The StarChild Team
StarChild Graphics & Music: Acknowledgments
StarChild Project Leader: Dr. Laura A. Whitlock
Curator: J.D. Myers
Responsible NASA Official: Amber Straughn