Two factors differentiate a comet from an asteroid: orbit and chemical composition. Comets have eccentric orbits so their distance from the Sun varies considerably. The nucleus of a comet is composed of volatile material. When a comet is far from the sun, this material usually stays pristine but when the comet comes closer to the sun, solar radiation and solar winds cause it to lose some volatile compounds from its surface. This gives it a coma i.e. a nebulous appearance and a thin, transient atmosphere, which differentiates it from asteroids.

In 2006 a unified term was coined that encompasses both comets and asteroids: "Small Solar System Body".

Comparison chart

Asteroid versus Comet comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartAsteroidComet
Orbit Typical elliptical orbit; distance from the sun does not vary too much Eccentric orbit; distance from the sun varies greatly
Nomenclature Named by discoverer Named for the discoverer
Composition Made of rock and metal. Made of ice, hydrocarbons and rocks.
Atmosphere (coma) Does not produce an atmosphere Volatile material on the surface which produces a coma (thin, temporary atmosphere) when the comet comes close to the sun
Orbital period (years) 1-100 75 to 100,000++
Size range of diameter (kilometer) 1 - 100++ 1-10 (nucleus only
Comet Hale-Bopp in 2007
Comet Hale-Bopp in 2007


Asteroids are named by their discoverers and comets are named for their discoverer. For example, Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the first asteroid and named it Ceres. The comet discovered by Edmund Halley, who demonstrated that the comets of 1531, 1607, and 1682 were the same body and successfully predicted its return in 1759, is called Halley's Comet (or Comet Halley).

Asteroids are assigned both names and numbers because there are so many of them. They are numbered sequentially. The first asteroid, discovered by astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi in Italy, was named Ceres and is numbered 1. By 2009, about 450,000 asteroids had been discovered and 200,000 of them had been numbered. When a new asteroid is discovered, its orbital elements are calculated and then it is numbered. The discoverer then has a right to name the asteroid.

When comets are discovered by several persons simultaneously, they are given an impersonal designation. When they are discovered by an instrument and not a human, the name of the instrument is used as if it were a person's name. Official names of non-periodic comets begin with a "C"; comets that have been lost or disappeared have names that begin with a "D". Periodic comets' names begin with a "P" and "X" denotes a comet whose orbit could not be reliably calculated.

Dual listings

A few objects have ended up being dual-listed as both asteroid and comet because they were first classified as minor planets (asteroids) but later showed evidence of cometary activity. Conversely, when comets are depleted of their surface volatile ices, they become asteroids. Most asteroids with eccentric orbits are probably dormant or extinct comets.

Video explaining the difference

This video from the History channel explains the differences and similarities between asteroids and comets:


Share this comparison:

If you read this far, you should follow us:

"Asteroid vs Comet." Diffen LLC, n.d. Web. 12 Nov 2018. < >