What’s the difference between an asteroid and a comet?

Asteroids and comets are both remnants of the early formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. As of August 2011, there were less than 4,500 known comets in the solar system, compared to over 550,000 known asteroids (although there are thought to be many millions more).

Asteroids are composed of rocky material and metals, while comets are made of ice. As a result, asteroids formed nearer the Sun than comets, because ice could not remain solid at a close distance. Comets that formed further out and later approached the Sun lose material with each orbit because the ice melts, forming a tail behind the body. Asteroids, on the other hand, do not lose material, and thus do not have a tail. Comets are often found in large elongated orbits extending outwards up to 50,000 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. By comparison, Neptune – the furthest planet of the solar system – is just 30 times further from the Sun than the Earth.

Concurrently, asteroids are usually found following a circular orbit around the Sun and they tend to group together in belts, such as the asteroid belt found between Jupiter and Mars, which was formed when the gravitational pull of Jupiter prevented the asteroids from forming into another planet.