Sublimation of ices during the early evolution of Kuiper belt objects

Adam Parhi, Dina Prialnik*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Kuiper belt objects, such as Arrokoth, the probable progenitors of short-period comets, formed and evolved at large heliocentric distances, where the ambient temperatures appear to be sufficiently low for preserving volatile ices. By detailed numerical simulations, we follow the long-term evolution of small bodies, composed of amorphous water ice, dust, and ices of other volatile species that are commonly observed in comets. The heat sources are solar radiation and the decay of short-lived radionuclides. The bodies are highly porous and gases released in the interior flow through the porous medium. The most volatile ices, CO and CH4, are found to be depleted down to the centre over a time-scale of the order of 100 Myr. Sublimation fronts advance from the surface inward, and when the temperature in the inner part rises sufficiently, bulk sublimation throughout the interior reduces gradually the volatile ices content until they are completely lost. All the other ices survive, which is compatible with data collected by New Horizons on Arrokoth, showing the presence of methanol, and possibly, H2O, CO2, NH3, and C2H6, but no hypervolatiles. The effect of short-lived radionuclides is to increase the sublimation equilibrium temperatures and reduce volatile depletion times. We consider the effect of the bulk density, abundance ratios, and heliocentric distance. At 100 au, CO is depleted, but CH4 survives to present times, except for a thin outer layer. Since, CO is abundantly detected in comets, we conclude that the source of highly volatile species in active comets must be gas trapped in amorphous ice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2081-2088
Number of pages8
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2023


  • Kuiper belt objects: individual: Arrokoth
  • Kuiper belt: general
  • comets: general


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