Thermal and Chemical Evolution of Comet Nuclei and Kuiper Belt Objects

Dina Prialnik, Gal Sarid, Eric D. Rosenberg, Rainer Merk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The structure and composition of comet nuclei are mainly altered during two short phases that are separated by a very long hibernation phase. Early evolution-during and immediately after formation-is the result of heating caused by radioactive decay, the most important source being 26Al. Several studies are reviewed, dealing with evolution throughout this phase, calculated by means of 1-D numerical codes that solve the heat and mass balance equations on a fixed spherically symmetric grid. It is shown that, depending on parameters, the interior may reach temperatures above the melting point of water. The models thus suggest that comets are likely to lose the ices of very volatile species during early evolution; ices of less volatile species are retained in the cold subsurface layer. As the initially amorphous ice is shown to crystallize in the interior, some objects may also lose part of the volatiles trapped in amorphous ice. Generally, the outer layers are far less affected than the inner part, resulting in a stratified composition and altered porosity distribution. The second phase of evolution occurs when comet nuclei are deflected into the inner solar system and is dominated by the effect of solar radiation. Now the outer layers are those mostly affected, undergoing crystallization, loss of volatiles, and significant structural changes. If any part of a comet nucleus should retain its pristine structure and composition, it would be well below the surface and also well above the core.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-164
Number of pages18
JournalSpace Science Reviews
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Jul 2008


  • Comets: general
  • Kuiper Belt


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