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Comets and asteroids are rocky and icy bodies that are smaller than planets. The distinction between comets, asteroids, and other small bodies in the solar system is a little fuzzy, but generally a comet is icier than an asteroid and has a more elongated orbit. The orbit of a comet takes it close to the Sun, then back into the outer solar system. When comets near the Sun, some of their ice turns from solid material into gas, releasing some of their dust. Comets have long tails of glowing gas and dust when they are near the Sun. Asteroids are rockier bodies and usually have orbits that keep them at always about the same distance from the Sun.
Both comets and asteroids have their origins in the early solar system. While the solar system was forming, many small, rocky objects called planetesimals condensed from the gas and dust of the early solar system. Millions of planetesimals remain in orbit around the Sun. A large spherical cloud of such objects out beyond Pluto forms the Oort cloud. The objects in the Oort cloud are considered comets. When our solar system passes close to another star or drifts closer than usual to the center of our galaxy, the change in gravitational pull may disturb the orbit of one of the icy comets in the Oort cloud. As this comet falls toward the Sun, the ice turns into vapor, freeing dust from the object. The gas and dust form the tail or tails of the comet. The gravitational pull of large planets such as Jupiter or Saturn may swerve the comet into an orbit closer to the Sun. The time needed for a comet to make a complete orbit around the Sun is called the comet’s period. Astronomers believe that comets with periods longer than about 200 years come from the Oort Cloud. Short-period comets, those with periods less than about 200 years, probably come from the Kuiper Belt, a ring of planetesimals beyond Neptune. The material in comets is probably from the very early solar system, so astronomers study comets to find out more about our solar system’s formation. When the solar system was forming, some of the planetesimals came together more toward the center of the solar system. Gravitational forces from the giant planet Jupiter prevented these planetesimals from forming full-fledged planets. Instead, the planetesimals broke up to create thousands of minor planets, or asteroids, that orbit the Sun. Most of them are in the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, but thousands are in orbits that come closer to Earth or even cross Earth's orbit. Scientists are increasingly aware of potential catastrophes if any of the largest of these asteroids hits Earth. Perhaps 2,000 asteroids larger than 1 km (0.6 mi) in diameter are potential hazards.


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