A heavenly icy body subject to the sun's force of attraction, moving in a elliptical or parabolic orbit, which sometimes degenerates into a hyperbola leading to the escape of the comet from the solar system. At times comets are also moved into Sun-grazing orbits, resulting in their destruction.
A comet consists of a hazy gaseous cloud (called a coma) with a bright solid nucleus (center). The nucleus resembles a dirty snowball, made of ice of various types and also rock and dust particles. As it approaches the sun, radiation pressure causes the vaporization of some of its ice. The resulting gases and particles form the coma and a tail (or two) which usually points away from the sun.
Most comets are believed to originate in the Oort cloud located at large distance from the Sun. It consists of debris left over from the condensation of the solar nebula; the outer edges of nebulae are cool enough that water exists in a solid, rather than gaseous, state.
Comets have always had an ominous reputation. In ancient times they were regarded as messengers of impending doom, such as the end of the world. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, there was a bright comet in the sky. Some said it foretold his death, and others said it carried Caesar's soul into heaven. In 1066 AD, King Harold put forward that the comet in the sky at the time was an evilomen of things to come. Shortly afterwards, he led his armies into battle against William the conqueror. He was defeated and even lost his life! When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1631 AD, a comet in the sky was also blamed for it.
In modern times the superstition continued. In 1909 and 1910, major cities across the world fell into a panic over the appearance of Halley's Comet, and peddlers sold "anti-comet sickness pills" in the streets. In 1973 the 'Children of God' cult distributed pamphlets proclaiming that the Comet Kohoutek was sent to announce the end of the world, and in 1997 thirty-nine members of the religious group known as 'Heaven's Gate' committed suicide by drinking a poisonous cocktail. They believed that the coming of Comet Hale-Bopp was a sign that it was time for them to shed their earthly bodies, and that their spirits would take flight behind the comet, taking them to a higher plane of existence.
According to 19th-century folklore, a falling or shooting star is believed to be a sign that a child has just come into the world. The shooting star supposedly falls over the spot where the baby is born. Many also believe that a wish made quickly and with sincerity on the first star of the evening, or while a falling star streaks across the nighttime sky, will be granted. To others a falling star is thought to be an unlucky omen for those who witness it, even a presage of death (especially of men of great power), or an indication that someone close to you has just passed on.
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