Comets vs Asteroids vs Meteoroids: What are the differences?


PHOTO CREDIT: Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0 – asteroid by 2di7 & titanio44

This article was originally published on Quora.com

User Ramy Zgheib answers:

comet is an icy small Solar System body that, when passing close to the Sun, heats up and begins to outgas, displaying a visible atmosphere or coma, and sometimes also a tail. Comet nuclei range from a few hundred meters to tens of kilometers across and are composed of loose collections of ice, dust, and small rocky particles. Short-period comets originate in the Kuiper belt or its associated scattered disc, which lie beyond the orbit of Neptune. Longer-period comets are thought to originate in the Oort cloud, a spherical cloud of icy bodies extending from outside the Kuiper Belt to halfway to the next nearest star. Long-period comets are directed towards the Sun from the Oort cloud by gravitational perturbations caused by passing stars and the galactic tide.

Asteroids are minor planets, especially those of the inner Solar System. The larger ones have also been called planetoids. These terms have historically been applied to any astronomical object orbiting the Sun that did not show the disc of a planet and was not observed to have the characteristics of an active comet, but as minor planets in the outer Solar System were discovered, they were often distinguished from traditional asteroids. The large majority of known asteroids orbit in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, or are co-orbital with Jupiter (the Jupiter Trojans). Other orbital families exist with significant populations, including the Near-Earth asteroids

However, extinct comets that have passed close to the Sun many times have lost nearly all of their volatile ices and dust and may come to resemble small asteroids. Also, the discovery of main-belt comets and active centaurs has blurred the distinction between asteroids and comets.

meteoroid is a small rocky or metallic body traveling through space. Meteoroids are significantly smaller than asteroids and range in size from small grains to 1 meter-wide objects. Most are fragments from comets or asteroids, whereas others are collision impact debris ejected from bodies such as the Moon or Mars.
When such an object enters the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed typically in excess of 20 km/s, aerodynamic heating produces a streak of light, both from the glowing object and the trail of glowing particles that it leaves in its wake. This phenomenon is called a meteor, or colloquially a “shooting star” or “falling star”. A series of many meteors appearing seconds or minutes apart, and appearing to originate from the same fixed point in the sky, is called a meteor shower. Incoming objects larger than several meters (asteroids or comets) can explode in the air. If a meteoroid, comet or asteroid withstands ablation from its atmospheric entey and impacts with the ground, then it is called a meteorite.