Comets: ghostly wanderers in space

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A public lecture by Mr Ian Ridpath.

 Comets appear in our skies from time to time like ghostly apparitions. In the past they were regarded as omens of disease, death and destruction. Now we know that countless billions of them exist in the form of dirty snowballs at the edge of our Solar System, remnants from the formation of the Earth and other planets. We see them only on the rare occasions when they approach the Sun and heat up, releasing gas and dust to form a glowing head and tail. Recent space probe missions to comets have given us astounding close-up pictures and first-hand information on their composition and structure. This talk will explain scientists’ efforts to understand where comets come from, what they are made of, how they were formed and their role in the origin and development of life on Earth.

 With comet 103P/Hartley expected to be visible through binoculars and perhaps even to the naked eye this autumn, as well as being visited by a space probe in early November, this talk is particularly topical.

Ian Ridpath is a popular writer on astronomy and is a former Council member of the Royal Astronomical Society.