How Telescopes Work

Comets and Meteors

Comet Kohoutek
Photo courtesy of NASA

A comet or a meteor streaking across the sky is an exciting sight for anyone, and a telescope can make these objects even more fascinating to watch.


Comets are brief visitors from the outer solar system. They change brightness and develop tails as they pass close to the sun. The views of comets in telescopes vary dramatically with each comet. Comet Hale-Bopp was a spectacular image in my small telescope. I could see some of the nucleus, the coma and the dust tail. And comet Hyakutake had a similar view. However, not all comets brighten or develop enough to reveal good images in small telescopes. Many observers were disappointed in the showings of comets Kohoutek and Halley in the 1980s. Many amateur astronomers search for comets with binoculars or a small telescope and a great deal of patience.



Meteors are debris (dust, rocks) that float about the solar system. These objects travel through the solar system at thousands of miles or kilometers per hour and, when they strike our atmosphere, they burn up because of friction. When a meteor burns up, it leaves a short-lived, long streak across the sky. If a meteor makes it through the atmosphere and lands on Earth, it is called a meteorite. The Earth can encounter meteors alone (sporadic) or in large numbers (showers). Meteor showers are associated with debris from comets, and they occur annually at various times. Meteor showers are named for the constellations from which they appear (such as the Perseids, Orionids and Leonids). Typically, meteors occur too fast to be seen with a telescope. The best way to see meteor showers is with the naked eye and/or binoculars in a dark sky where there are no city lights. Meteor counts are a typical amateur astronomy project. A good meteor shower is a wonder to observe -- some showers can consist of up to a hundred meteors an hour!