Student Question

Why do the ion tail and dust tail of a comet point in different directions?

Expert Answers

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The ion tail and the dust tail of a comet point in different directions because they are reacting to different forces. The ion tail (also called the plasma tail) occurs from from a reaction of the ion `` from the comet with the magnetic field found in solar wind. This causes the ion tail to point directly away from the sun. Fluctuations in the magnetic field can cause twists, "knots" and other variations in the appearance of the ion tail.

The dust tail of a comet is impacted by the force of radiation from the sun (called radiation pressure). Even thought the dust tail is formed by particles dislodged by the radiation pressure from the sun, the path of the dust tail is dictated by the movement of the comet. The direction of the dust tail points away from the sun but also behind comet, where the comet has traveled. This results in the dust trail having a curve that follows the comet on its orbit.

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