Comet nucleus

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The nucleus of Comet Tempel 1.
Surface of the nucleus of Comet 67P from 10 km away as seen by Rosetta spacecraft

The nucleus is the solid, central part of a comet, popularly termed a dirty snowball or an icy dirtball. A cometary nucleus is composed of rock, dust, and frozen gases. When heated by the Sun, the gases sublimate and produce an atmosphere surrounding the nucleus known as the coma. The force exerted on the coma by the Sun's radiation pressure and solar wind cause an enormous tail to form, which points away from the Sun. A typical comet nucleus has an albedo of 0.04.[1] This is blacker than coal, and may be caused by a covering of dust.[2]

Results from the Rosetta and Philae spacecraft show that the nucleus of 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko has no magnetic field, which suggests that magnetism may not have played a role in the early formation of planetesimals.[3][4] Further, the ALICE spectrograph on Rosetta determined that electrons (within 1 km (0.62 mi) above the comet nucleus) produced from photoionization of water molecules by solar radiation, and not photons from the Sun as thought earlier, are responsible for the degradation of water and carbon dioxide molecules released from the comet nucleus into its coma.[5][6] On 30 July 2015, scientists reported that the Philae spacecraft, that landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November 2014, detected at least 16 organic compounds, of which four (including acetamide, acetone, methyl isocyanate and propionaldehyde) were detected for the first time on a comet.[7][8][9]


Tempel 1 and Hartley 2 compared
Tempel 1 in X-ray light by Chandra. (Distant imaging includes coma)

Most cometary nuclei are thought to be no more than about 10 miles (16 kilometers) across.[10] The largest comets that have come inside the orbit of Saturn are C/2002 VQ94 (~100 km), Hale–Bopp (~60 km), 29P (~30.8 km), 109P/Swift–Tuttle (~26 km), and 28P/Neujmin (~21.4 km).

C/2006 W3 (Chistensen) - emitting carbon gas

The potato-shaped nucleus of Halley's comet (15 × 8 × 8 km)[10][11] contains equal amounts of ice and dust. About 80 percent of the ice is water ice, and frozen carbon monoxide makes up another 15 percent. Much of the remainder is frozen carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia.[10] Scientists believe that other comets are chemically similar to Halley's Comet. The nucleus of Halley's Comet is also an extremely dark black. Scientists believe that the surface of the comet, and perhaps most other comets, is covered with a black crust of dust and rock that covers most of the ice. These comets release gas only when holes in this crust rotate toward the Sun, exposing the interior ice to the warming sunlight.

During a flyby in 2001, the Deep Space 1 spacecraft observed the nucleus of Comet Borrelly and found it to be about half the size (8×4×4 km)[12] of the nucleus of Halley's Comet.[10] Borrelly's nucleus was also potato-shaped and had a dark black surface.[10] Like Halley's Comet, Comet Borrelly only released gas from small areas where holes in the crust exposed the ice to sunlight.

The nucleus of comet Hale–Bopp was estimated to be 60 ± 20 km in diameter.[13] Hale-Bopp appeared bright to the unaided eye because its unusually large nucleus gave off a great deal of dust and gas.

The nucleus of P/2007 R5 is probably only 100–200 meters in diameter.[14]

The largest centaurs (unstable, planet crossing, icy asteroids) are estimated to be 250 km to 300 km in diameter. Three of the largest would include 10199 Chariklo (258 km), 2060 Chiron (230 km), and the currently lost 1995 SN55 (~300 km).

Known comets have been estimated to have an average density of 0.6 g/cm3.[15] Below is a list of comets that have had estimated sizes, densities, and masses.

Name Dimensions
Halley's Comet 15 × 8 × 8[10][11] 0.6[17] 3×1014
Tempel 1 7.6×4.9[18] 0.62[15] 7.9×1013
19P/Borrelly 8×4×4[12] 0.3[15] 2×1013
81P/Wild 5.5×4.0×3.3[19] 0.6[15] 2.3×1013
67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko See article on 67P 0.4[20] (1.0±0.1)×1013 [21]


Comet Wild 2

Comets are often described as "dirty snowballs", though recent observations have revealed dry dusty or rocky surfaces, suggesting that the ices are hidden beneath the crust. It has been suggested that comets should be referred to as "Icy dirtballs".[1] Cometary nuclei are among the darkest objects known to exist in the Solar System. The Giotto probe found that Comet Halley's nucleus reflects approximately 4% of the light that falls on it,[22] and Deep Space 1 discovered that Comet Borrelly's surface reflects only 2.5–3.0% of the light that falls on it;[22] by comparison, fresh asphalt reflects 7% of the light that falls on it. It is thought that complex organic compounds are the dark surface material. Solar heating drives off volatile compounds leaving behind heavy long-chain organics that tend to be very dark, like tar or crude oil. The very darkness of cometary surfaces allows them to absorb the heat necessary to drive their outgassing.

Roughly six percent of the near-Earth asteroids are thought to be extinct nuclei of comets (see Extinct comets) which no longer experience outgassing.[23] Two near-Earth asteroids with albedos this low include 14827 Hypnos and 3552 Don Quixote.


The first really close mission to a comet nucleus was space probe Giotto.[24] This was the first time a nucleus was imaged at such proximity, coming as near as 596 km.[24] The data was a revelation, showing for the first time the jets, the low-albedo surface, and organic compounds.[24][25]

During its flyby, Giotto was hit at least 12,000 times by particles, including a 1-gram fragment that caused a temporary loss of communication with Darmstadt.[24] Halley was calculated to be ejecting three tonnes of material per second[26] from seven jets, causing it to wobble over long time periods.[2] Comet Grigg–Skjellerup's nucleus was visited after Halley, with Giotto approaching 100–200 km.[24]

Results from the Rosetta and Philae spacecraft show that the nucleus of 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko has no magnetic field, which suggests that magnetism may not have played a role in the early formation of planetesimals.[3][4] Further, the ALICE spectrograph on Rosetta determined that electrons (within 1 km (0.62 mi) above the comet nucleus) produced from photoionization of water molecules by solar radiation, and not photons from the Sun as thought earlier, are responsible for the degradation of water and carbon dioxide molecules released from the comet nucleus into its coma.[5][6]

Tempel 1 (PIA02127).jpg
Comet Borrelly Nucleus.jpg
Wild2 3.jpg
Comet Hartley 2 (super crop).jpg
Comet 67P on 19 September 2014 NavCam mosaic.jpg
Tempel 1
Deep Impact
Tempel 1
Deep Space 1
Wild 2
Hartley 2
Deep Impact


Fragment B of Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 disintegrating, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope

The nucleus of some comets may be fragile, a conclusion supported by the observation of comets splitting apart.[10] Splitting comets include 3D/Biela in 1846, Shoemaker–Levy 9 in 1992,[27] and 73P/Schwassmann–Wachmann from 1995 to 2006.[28] Greek historian Ephorus reported that a comet split apart as far back as the winter of 372–373 BC.[29] Comets are suspected of splitting due to thermal stress, internal gas pressure, or impact.[30]

Comets 42P/Neujmin and 53P/Van Biesbroeck appear to be fragments of a parent comet. Numerical integrations have shown that both comets had a rather close approach to Jupiter in January 1850, and that, before 1850, the two orbits were nearly identical.[31]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Robert Roy Britt (29 November 2001). "Comet Borrelly Puzzle: Darkest Object in the Solar System". Retrieved 26 October 2008. 
  2. ^ a b "ESA Science & Technology: Halley". ESA. 10 March 2006. Retrieved 22 February 2009. 
  3. ^ a b Bauer, Markus (14 April 2015). "Rosetta and Philae Find Comet Not Magnetised". European Space Agency. Retrieved 14 April 2015. 
  4. ^ a b Schiermeier, Quirin (14 April 2015). "Rosetta's comet has no magnetic field". Nature. doi:10.1038/nature.2015.17327. 
  5. ^ a b Agle, DC; Brown, Dwayne; Fohn, Joe; Bauer, Markus (2 June 2015). "NASA Instrument on Rosetta Makes Comet Atmosphere Discovery". NASA. Retrieved 2 June 2015. 
  6. ^ a b Feldman, Paul D.; A'Hearn, Michael F.; Bertaux, Jean-Loup; Feaga, Lori M.; Parker, Joel Wm.; et al. (2 June 2015). "Measurements of the near-nucleus coma of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko with the Alice far-ultraviolet spectrograph on Rosetta" (PDF). Astronomy and Astrophysics 583: A8. arXiv:1506.01203. Bibcode:2015A&A...583A...8F. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201525925. 
  7. ^ Jordans, Frank (30 July 2015). "Philae probe finds evidence that comets can be cosmic labs". The Washington Post. Associated Press. Retrieved 30 July 2015. 
  8. ^ "Science on the Surface of a Comet". European Space Agency. 30 July 2015. Retrieved 30 July 2015. 
  9. ^ Bibring, J.-P.; Taylor, M.G.G.T.; Alexander, C.; Auster, U.; Biele, J.; Finzi, A. Ercoli; Goesmann, F.; Klingehoefer, G.; Kofman, W.; Mottola, S.; Seidenstiker, K.J.; Spohn, T.; Wright, I. (31 July 2015). "Philae's First Days on the Comet - Introduction to Special Issue". Science 349 (6247): 493. Bibcode:2015Sci...349..493B. doi:10.1126/science.aac5116. Retrieved 30 July 2015. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Yeomans, Donald K. (2005). "Comets (World Book Online Reference Center 125580)". NASA. Retrieved 20 November 2007. [dead link]
  11. ^ a b "What Have We Learned About Halley's Comet?". Astronomical Society of the Pacific (No. 6 – Fall 1986). 1986. Retrieved 14 December 2008. 
  12. ^ a b Weaver, H. A.; Stern, S.A.; Parker, J. Wm. (2003). "Hubble Space Telescope STIS Observations of Comet 19P/BORRELLY during the Deep Space 1 Encounter". The American Astronomical Society 126 (1): 444–451. Bibcode:2003AJ....126..444W. doi:10.1086/375752. Retrieved 14 December 2008. 
  13. ^ Fernández, Yanga R. (2002). "The Nucleus of Comet Hale-Bopp (C/1995 O1): Size and Activity". Earth, Moon, and Planets 89 (1): 3–25. Bibcode:2000EM&P...89....3F. doi:10.1023/A:1021545031431. 
  14. ^ "SOHO's new catch: its first officially periodic comet". European Space Agency. 25 September 2007. Retrieved 20 November 2007. 
  15. ^ a b c d D. T. Britt; G. J. Consol-magno SJ; W. J. Merline (2006). "Small Body Density and Porosity: New Data, New Insights" (PDF). Lunar and Planetary Science XXXVII. Retrieved 14 December 2008. 
  16. ^ Halley: Using the volume of an ellipsoid of 15x8x8km * a rubble pile density of 0.6 g/cm3 yields a mass (m=d*v) of 3.02E+14 kg.
    Tempel 1: Using a spherical diameter of 6.25 km; volume of a sphere * a density of 0.62 g/cm3 yields a mass of 7.9E+13 kg.
    19P/Borrelly: Using the volume of an ellipsoid of 8x4x4km * a density of 0.3 g/cm3 yields a mass of 2.0E+13 kg.
    81P/Wild: Using the volume of an ellipsoid of 5.5x4.0x3.3km * a density of 0.6 g/cm3 yields a mass of 2.28E+13 kg.
  17. ^ RZ Sagdeev; PE Elyasberg; VI Moroz. (1988). "Is the nucleus of Comet Halley a low density body?". Nature 331 (6153): 240–242. Bibcode:1988Natur.331..240S. doi:10.1038/331240a0. 
  18. ^ "Comet 9P/Tempel 1". The Planetary Society. Retrieved 15 December 2008. 
  19. ^ "Comet 81P/Wild 2". The Planetary Society. Retrieved 20 November 2007. 
  20. ^ Baldwin, Emily (6 October 2014). "Measuring Comet 67P/C-G". European Space Agency. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  21. ^ Baldwin, Emily (21 August 2014). "Determining the mass of comet 67P/C-G". European Space Agency. Retrieved 21 August 2014. 
  22. ^ a b "Comet May Be the Darkest Object Yet Seen". The New York Times. 14 December 2001. Retrieved 9 May 2011. 
  23. ^ Whitman, Kathryn; Morbidelli, Alessandro; Jedicke, Robert (2006). "The Size-Frequency Distribution of Dormant Jupiter Family Comets". Icarus 183: 101–114. arXiv:astro-ph/0603106. Bibcode:2006Icar..183..101W. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2006.02.016. 
  24. ^ a b c d e esa. "Giotto overview". European Space Agency. 
  25. ^ Organic compounds (usually referred to as organics) does not imply life, it is just a class of chemicals: see Organic chemistry.
  26. ^ J. A. M. McDonnell; et al. (15 May 1986). "Dust density and mass distribution near comet Halley from Giotto observations". Nature 321: 338–341. Bibcode:1986Natur.321..338M. doi:10.1038/321338a0. 
  27. ^ JPL Public Information Office. "Comet Shoemaker-Levy Background". JPL/NASA. Retrieved 25 October 2008. 
  28. ^ Whitney Clavin (10 May 2006). "Spitzer Telescope Sees Trail of Comet Crumbs". Spitzer Space Telescope at Caltech. Retrieved 25 October 2008. 
  29. ^ Donald K. Yeomans (1998). "Great Comets in History". Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Retrieved 15 March 2007. 
  30. ^ H. Boehnhardt. "Split Comets" (PDF). Lunar and Planetary Institute (Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie Heidelberg). Retrieved 25 October 2008. 
  31. ^ J. Pittichova; K.J. Meech; G.B. Valsecch; E.M. Pittich (1–6 September 2003). "Are Comets 42P/Neujmin 3 and 53P/Van Biesbroeck Parts of one Comet?". Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, 35 #4. Retrieved 1 March 2010. 

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