An exocomet, or extrasolar comet, is a comet outside the Solar System, which includes interstellar comets and those that orbit stars other than the Sun. The first exocomets were detected in 1987 around Beta Pictoris, a very young A-type main-sequence star. There are now a total of 11 stars around which exocomets have been observed or suspected.
All discovered exocometary systems (Beta Pictoris, HR 10, 51 Ophiuchi, HR 2174, 49 Ceti, 5 Vulpeculae, 2 Andromedae, HD 21620, HD 42111, HD 110411, and more recently HD 172555) are around very young A-type stars.
The exocomets can be detected by spectroscopy as they transit their host stars. The transits of exocomets, like the transits of exoplanets, produce variations in the light received from the star. Changes are observed in the absorption lines of the stellar spectrum: the occultation of the star by the gas cloud coming from the exocomet produces additional absorption features beyond those normally seen in that star, like those observed in the ionized calcium lines. As the comet comes close enough to the star, cometary gas is evolved from the evaporation of volatile ices and dust with it.
Observations of comets, and especially exocomets, improve our understanding of planet formation. Indeed, in the standard model of planet formation by accretion, planets are the result of the agglomeration of planetesimals, themselves formed by the coalescence of dust from the protoplanetary disk surrounding the star shortly after its formation. Thus, comets are the residuals of the volatile-rich planetesimals that remained in the planetary system without having been incorporated into the planets. They are considered fossil bodies that have seen the physical and chemical conditions prevailing at the time of planet formation.
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- Exomoon – Any moon beyond the Solar System
- Exoplanet – Any planet beyond the Solar System
- Interstellar object – Astronomical object not gravitationally bound to a star
- Kepler space telescope – Tenth mission of the Discovery program; optical space telescope for exoplanetology
- Rogue planet – A planetary-mass object that orbits the galaxy directly
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