Rock comet

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A rock comet is a rare type of small Solar System body that exhibits features of both a comet and an asteroid, mainly in that it outgasses material primarily made up of grains of rock.

The cause of rock comets' outgassing is similar to how mud in a dry lake bottom cracks.

Rock comets, unlike other comets, which outgas primarily ice, have a nucleus made of rock. As a result, their outgassing can be unpredictable.

The reason this happens is thought to be similar to how mud cracks at the bottom of a dry lake bed, leaving small chunks loose on the surface of the body, which later get pushed off it due to radiation pressure sweeping.[1]

Sometimes, an object can be mistakenly identified as a rock comet, such as P/2010 A2, an asteroid in the asteroid belt that collided with another object, causing it to have a field of debris trailing it for a short time.[2]

Rock comets are rare because a rocky small Solar System body must come very close to the Sun, close enough for both the solid ground to crack, and for radiation pressure sufficient to push the separate pieces off the asteroid. However, if the asteroid is close enough to the Sun for the former, the latter will also happen.


Until 2016, the only known example of a rock comet was 3200 Phaethon, which has a perihelion (closest point to the Sun) closer than any other named asteroid (0.14 AU). It has been known to brighten on occasions, implying outgassing, and has been observed ejecting dust by the STEREO spacecraft.[3][4] In 2016, observations of 322P/SOHO by the Spitzer Space Telescope showed it to most likely be a rock comet as well, which would make it the lowest-perihelion "asteroid", with a perihelion of 0.054 AU, even though it was initially identified as a comet.[5]

Several unnamed asteroids travel closer to the Sun than 3200 Phaethon, but none have been observed to outgas, which does not imply they do not, because none of these have been observed in detail, and it is possible that detailed observations could show some outgassing.


  1. ^ Sutherland, Paul (10 September 2013). "Why an asteroid is crumbling into meteor dust". Skymania. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
  2. ^ Harrington, J.D.; Ray Villard (2 February 2010). "Suspected Asteroid Collision Leaves Trailing Debris". NASA. Retrieved 8 February 2014.
  3. ^ Jewitt, David; Li, Jing; Agarwal, Jessica (17 June 2013). "The Dust Tail of Asteroid (3200) Phaethon". The Astrophysical Journal. 771 (2): L36. arXiv:1306.3741. Bibcode:2013ApJ...771L..36J. doi:10.1088/2041-8205/771/2/L36.
  4. ^ Jewitt, David; Jing Li (14 September 2010). "Activity in Geminid Parent (3200) Phaethon". The Astronomical Journal. 140 (5): 1519. arXiv:1009.2710. Bibcode:2010AJ....140.1519J. doi:10.1088/0004-6256/140/5/1519.
  5. ^ Knight, Matthew M.; Fitzsimmons, Alan; Kelley, Michael S. P.; Snodgrass, Colin (23 April 2016). "COMET 322P/SOHO 1: AN ASTEROID WITH THE SMALLEST PERIHELION DISTANCE?". The Astrophysical Journal Letters. arXiv:1604.07790. Bibcode:2016ApJ...823L...6K. doi:10.3847/2041-8205/823/1/l6.