A comet is an icy small Solar System body (SSSB) that, when close enough to the Sun, displays a visible coma (a thin, fuzzy, temporary atmosphere) and sometimes also a tail. These phenomena are both due to the effects of solar radiation and the solar wind upon the nucleus of the comet. Comet nuclei range from a few hundred meters to tens of kilometers across and are composed of loose collections of ice, dust, and small rocky particles. Comets have been observed since ancient times and have traditionally been considered bad omens.
Comets have a wide range of orbital periods, ranging from a few years to hundreds of thousands of years. Short-period comets originate in the Kuiper belt, or its associated scattered disc, which lie beyond the orbit of Neptune. Longer-period comets are thought to originate in the Oort cloud, a hypothesized spherical cloud of icy bodies in the outer Solar System. Long-period comets plunge towards the Sun from the Oort cloud because of gravitational perturbations caused by either the massive outer planets of the Solar System (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune), or passing stars. Rare hyperbolic comets pass once through the inner Solar System before being thrown out into interstellar space along hyperbolic trajectories.
Comets are distinguished from asteroids by the presence of a coma or a tail. However, extinct comets that have passed close to the Sun many times have lost nearly all of their volatile ices and dust and may come to resemble small asteroids. Asteroids are thought to have a different origin from comets, having formed inside the orbit of Jupiter rather than in the outer Solar System. The discovery of main-belt comets and active centaurs has blurred the distinction between asteroids and comets (see asteroid terminology).
As of January 2011 there are a reported 4,185 known comets of which about 1,500 are Kreutz Sungrazers and about 484 are short-period. This number is steadily increasing. However, this represents only a tiny fraction of the total potential comet population: the reservoir of comet-like bodies in the outer Solar System may number one trillion. The number visible to the naked eye averages roughly one per year, though many of these are faint and unspectacular. Particularly bright or notable examples are called "Great Comets".