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Comets 101: A primer on the 'dirty snowballs' of space

By: Katherine Butler on Jan. 11, 2012, 10:35 a.m.
illustration of death of a comet

Photo: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech

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Death of a comet

Here we see an artist’s rendering of what a comet would look like in its final moments around a dead star. The dead star G29-3 was recently observed by the Spitzer Space Telescope with a cloud of dust that may have been created by a comet collision.

“This illustration shows a comet in the process of being pulverized: Part of it still exists as a chain of small clumps, while the rest has already spread out into a dusty disk,” according to NASA. Experts believe that other comet “survivors” may still circle about this G29-3 in this now defunct solar system. They believe this sun was at one time three times as big as our own. In its natural lifetime, it may have swollen to the size of a red giant star, engulfing any nearby planets.

NASA expects our own sun to do that same, but don’t worry about hitching a ride out on the next comet to swing our way — they don’t expect this to happen for a few more billion years.