Cometary dust is observed in a variety of ways: scattered light, thermal emission, stellar occultations, coma and tail morphology, radar echoes, and meteors associated with comets. To interpret these observations with respect to the physical parameters of the dust (size, shape, and composition) and the properties of the dust-emitting region, the physics of how electromagnetic radiation interacts with small particles must be understood.
The interaction between electromagnetic radiation and a small particle depends on the size, shape, and composition of the particle. The composition determines the optical constants of the material. Classically, a solid can be approximated by a collection of bound charges with a number of resonant frequencies. The optical constants (the index of refraction or dielectric constant) are a measure of the ability of the material to vibrate in response to an incoming electromagnetic wave. The laboratory measurement of optical constants is very difficult, and many published optical constants may be in error. Care must also be taken in choosing the optical constants that best represent the assumed composition of the cometary dust.
Scattering theory is usually synonymous with Mie theory, although Mie theory pertains only to spherical particles. In many cases, homogeneous spheres may be good approximations of the dust in the coma, but an understanding of the effects of non-sphericity and heterogeneity is essential to determine the limitations of the spherical approximation. A variety of methods exist that, although computationally intensive, do provide insight into shape effects.