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Distant Comet C/2017 K2 and the Cohesion Bottleneck

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Agarwal,  Jessica
Department Planets and Comets, Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Max Planck Society;

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Citation

Jewitt, D., Agarwal, J., Hui, M.-T., Li, J., Mutchler, M., & Weaver, H. (2019). Distant Comet C/2017 K2 and the Cohesion Bottleneck. The Astronomical Journal, 157(2): 65. doi:10.3847/1538-3881/aaf38c.


Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0003-A225-C
Abstract
The distant long-period comet C/2017 K2 (PANSTARRS) has been outside the planetary region of the solar system for ~3 Myr, negating the possibility that heat retained from the previous perihelion could be responsible for its activity. This inbound comet is also too cold for water ice to sublimate and too cold for amorphous water ice, if present, to crystallize. C/2017 K2 thus presents an ideal target in which to investigate the mechanisms responsible for activity in distant comets. We have used the Hubble Space Telescope to study the comet in the pre-perihelion heliocentric distance range 13.8 ≤ r H ≤ 15.9 au. In this range, the coma maintains a logarithmic surface brightness gradient m = −1.010 ± 0.004, consistent with mass loss proceeding in steady state. The absence of a radiation pressure swept tail indicates that the effective particle size is large (radius gsim0.1 mm) and the mass-loss rate is ~200 kg s−1, remarkable for a comet still beyond the orbit of Saturn. Extrapolation of the photometry indicates that activity began in 2012.1 ± 0.5, at r H = 25.9 ± 0.9 au, where the isothermal blackbody temperature is only T BB = 55 K. This large distance and low temperature suggest that cometary activity is driven by the sublimation of a super-volatile ice (e.g., CO), presumably preserved by K2's long-term residence in the Oort cloud. The mass-loss rate can be sustained by CO sublimation from an area lesssim2 km2, if located near the hot subsolar point on the nucleus. However, while the drag force from sublimated CO is sufficient to lift millimeter-sized particles against the gravity of the cometary nucleus, it is 102–103 times too small to eject these particles against interparticle cohesion. Our observations thus require either a new understanding of the physics of interparticle cohesion or the introduction of another mechanism to drive distant cometary mass loss. We suggest thermal fracture and electrostatic supercharging in this context.