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Comet interaction with interplanetary space, part 2 - Windows to the Universe

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The Winter 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist includes a variety of educational resources, ranging from astronomy to glaciers. Check out the other publications and classroom materials in our online store.
This picture shows what happens when the molecules coming from the comet encounter interplanetary space.
Click on image for full size
JPL

The comet's interaction with interplanetary space, part 2
How Particles are Swept into the Tail

The magnetic field of the sun (the IMF) is distorted in passing over the comet, taking a long time to slip around the sizeable ion cloud which forms the comet coma. The stretched magnetic field lines form a long tail region as they slip around the nucleus, before finally straightening out, about a million miles later, to their original configuration.

Ions from the nucleus begin to circle around the field lines of the IMF and are thus carried into the tail region created by the stretched magnetic field lines. Once they begin gyrating around the magnetic field, ions are "stuck" to the field lines.

The movie below shows this process at work.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF