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Before the seventeenth century comets were considered portents-warning shots fired at asinful Earth from the right hand of an avenging God However in the post-Newtonian era whentheir paths were understood to intersect that of the Earth they were considered actual agents ofdestruction Experts have described comets as the carriers of both life-seeds to the early Earthand horrific missiles that will one day snuff out life as we know it At one time or anotherpeople have blamed comets for war and held responsible for the deaths of men the birth of goodwine the London fire of 1666 severely cold weather etc If one central theme runsthroughout history of comets it must be the public concern they have commandedComets are ancient objects formed in the outer reaches of the Solar System from the iceof gases such as methane water vapor and ammonia combined with dust from primitive rockcompounds Sometimes comets are described as dirty snowballs because they are icy lumpsor wandering icebergs Comets are relatively tiny- just a few miles across on average Theirnuclei are very different from glowing balls of light with multimillion-mile-long tails This isone reason comets occasionally visit the inner Solar SystemAstronomers divide comets into long-period types with orbits of more than 200 years andshort-period types with orbits of less than 200 years as cited in Branley 1988 p 43 All cometsbegin their journey as long- period types Gravitational fields of planets then capture long-period comets Comets can have orbits at any angle because they can come from any regionOnce comets are captured they fall into line with the movement of planets staying close to theecliptic orbiting the sun in the same direction as the planets One exception is Halleys CometIt is a short-period comet with an orbital period of about seventy-six years- known as retrogradeorbits as cited in Branley 1988 p 44 Retrograde orbits are simply clockwise orbital motion asseen from the north pole of a planet Most Solar System
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