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Oort cloud

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This diagram shows the presumed distance of the Oort cloud compared to the rest of the .
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This diagram shows the presumed distance of the Oort cloud compared to the rest of the solar system.

The Oort cloud (sometimes called the pik-Oort Cloud) is a postulated spherical cloud of comets situated about 50,000 to 100,000 AU from the Sun. This is approximately 1000 times the distance from the Sun to Pluto or roughly one light year, almost a quarter of the distance from the Sun to Proxima Centauri, the star nearest the Sun.

The Oort cloud would have its inner disk at the ecliptic from the Kuiper belt. Although no direct observations have been made of such a cloud, it is believed to be the source of most or all comets entering the inner solar system (some short-period comets may come from the Kuiper belt), based on observations of the orbits of comets.

In 1932 Ernst pik, an Estonian astronomer, proposed that comets originate in an orbiting cloud situated at the outermost edge of the solar system. In 1950 the idea was revived and proposed by Dutch astronomer Jan Hendrick Oort to explain an apparent contradiction: comets are destroyed by several passes through the inner solar system, yet if the comets we observe had existed since the origin of the solar system, all would have been destroyed by now. According to the theory, the Oort cloud contains millions of comet nuclei, which are stable because the sun's radiation is very weak at their distance. The cloud provides a continual supply of new comets, replacing those that are destroyed.

The Oort cloud is a remnant of the original nebula that collapsed to form the Sun and planets five billion years ago, and is loosely bound to the solar system. The most widely-accepted theory of its formation is that the Oort cloud's objects initially formed much closer to the Sun as part of the same process that formed the planets and asteroids, but that gravitational interaction with young gas giants such as Jupiter ejected them into extremely long elliptical or parabolic orbits. This process also served to scatter the objects out of the ecliptic plane, explaining the cloud's spherical distribution. While on the distant outer regions of these orbits, gravitational interaction with nearby stars further modified their orbits to make them more circular.

It is thought that other stars are likely to possess Oort clouds of their own, and that the outer edges of two nearby stars' Oort clouds may sometimes overlap, causing the occasional intrusion of a comet into the inner solar system. The star with the greatest possibility of perturbing the Oort cloud in the next 10 million years is Gliese 710.

So far, only one potential Oort cloud object has been discovered; 90377 Sedna. With an orbit that ranges from roughly 76 to 928 AU, it is much closer than originally expected and may belong to an "inner" Oort cloud. If Sedna indeed belongs to the Oort cloud, this may mean that the Oort cloud is both denser and closer to the Sun than previously thought. This has been proposed as possible evidence that the Sun initially formed as part of a dense cluster of stars; with closer neighbors during Oort cloud formation, objects ejected by gas giants would have their orbits circularized closer to the Sun than was predicted for situations with more distant neighbors.


Oort cloud objects
Number Name Equatorial diameter
(km)
Perihelion (in AU) Aphelion (in AU) Date discovered Discoverer Diameter method
90377 Sedna <1800, >1250 76 (7) ~850 2003 Michael E. Brown, Chadwick A. Trujillo, David L. Rabinowitz thermal

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The minor planets
Vulcanoids | Main belt | Groups and families | Near-Earth objects | Jupiter Trojans
Centaurs | Trans-Neptunians | Damocloids | Comets | Kuiper belt | Oort cloud
(For other objects and regions, see: Binary asteroids, Asteroid moons and the Solar system)
(For a complete listing, see: List of asteroids. For pronunciation, see: Pronunciation of asteroid names.)


Our Solar System
Sun | Mercury | Venus | Earth (Moon) | Mars | Asteroid belts
Jupiter | Saturn | Uranus | Neptune | Pluto | Kuiper belt | Oort cloud
See also astronomical objects and the solar system's list of objects, sorted by radius or mass
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