What makes comets active?

Dina Prialnik*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


There are three types of energy sources that affect comet nuclei and may render them active: thermal - solar radiation, nuclear - radioactive decay, and gravitational - through collisions and tidal forces. These sources give rise to processes that, in turn, may release, absorb or transport energy: sublimation or recondensation of volatiles, crystallization of amorphous ice, heat diffusion and advection, gas flow through the porous nucleus. Each of these sources and processes has its own characteristic time scale (or rate) and these may differ by many orders of magnitude. It is the competition between various processes and the interaction between them - as one triggers the other, or else impedes it - that determine the activity pattern and the internal structure of a comet nucleus. Examples of such interactions and their outcome are presented, such as apparently sporadic activity at large heliocentric distances, obtained from numerical simulations of the behavior and evolution of comet nuclei. Confrontation of modeling results with observations provides feedback and constraints for the assumptions and parameters on which models are based. Adjusting the latter to match observations reveals properties of the nucleus that are otherwise inaccessible (except for in situ measurements by space missions). However, the interpretation of observations, such as production rates in relation to nucleus abundances, may be misleading. It is shown that monitoring production rates over the active part of a periodic comet's orbit may lead to conclusions regarding the composition and structure of the nucleus.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)153-170
Number of pages18
JournalProceedings of the International Astronomical Union
Issue numberS229
StatePublished - 2005


  • Comets: general


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