We explore a possible mechanism that may explain sudden depressions of surface areas on a comet nucleus, as suggested by observations of the Rosetta mission on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (hereafter, 67P/C-G). Assuming the area is covered by a thin, compact dust layer of low permeability to gas flow compared to deeper, porous layers, gas can accumulate below the surface when a surge of gas release from amorphous ice occurs upon crystallization. The gas pressure is found to exceed the hydrostatic pressure down to a depth of a few metres. The rapid build-up of pressure may weaken the already fragile, highly porous structure. Eventually, the high pressure gradient that arises drives the gas out and the pressure falls well below the hydrostatic pressure. The rapid pressure drop may result in collapse. Since the crystallization front lies at some depth below the surface, the location on the orbit when this phenomenon occurs is determined by the thermal lag, which, in turn, depends on the thermal conductivity. Numerical simulations show that mostly such activity occurs post-perihelion, but it may also occur pre-perihelion. When permeability is uniform, crystallization still causes increased gas production, but the gas pressure inside the nucleus remains below hydrostatic pressure.
- comets: general
- comets: individual: 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko