Nondetection of water-ice grains in the coma of comet 46P/Wirtanen and implications for hyperactivity

Silvia Protopapa, Michael S.P. Kelley, Charles E. Woodward, Bin Yang

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4 Scopus citations


Hyperactive comets have high water production rates, with inferred sublimation areas of order the surface area of the nucleus. Comets 46P/Wirtanen and 103P/Hartley 2 are two examples of this cometary class. Based on observations of comet Hartley 2 by the Deep Impact spacecraft, hyperactivity appears to be caused by the ejection of water-ice grains and/or water-ice-rich chunks of nucleus into the coma. These materials increase the sublimating surface area and yield high water production rates. The historic close approach of comet Wirtanen to Earth in 2018 afforded an opportunity to test Hartley 2–style hyperactivity in a second Jupiter-family comet. We present high spatial resolution, near-infrared spectroscopy of the inner coma of Wirtanen. No evidence for the 1.5 or 2.0 μm water-ice absorption bands is found in six 0.8–2.5 μm spectra taken around perihelion and closest approach to Earth. In addition, the strong 3.0 μm water-ice absorption band is absent in a 2.0–5.3 μm spectrum taken near perihelion. Using spectroscopic and sublimation lifetime models, we set constraints on the physical properties of the ice grains in the coma, assuming they are responsible for the comet’s hyperactivity. We rule out pure water-ice grains of any size, given their long lifetime. Instead, the hyperactivity of the nucleus and lack of water-ice absorption features in our spectra can be explained either by icy grains on the order of 1 μm in size with a small amount of low-albedo dust (greater than 0.5% by volume) or by large chunks containing significant amounts of water ice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberac135a
JournalPlanetary Science Journal
Issue number5
StatePublished - Aug 30 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors thank D. Wooden for helping to identify the cometary CN emission. Support for this work was provided through the NASA Solar System Observations program grant No. 80NSSC20K0673. S.P. thanks NASA grant 80NSSC19K0402 and Space Telescope Science Institute grant HST-GO-15372 for partial funding that supported her work. C. E.W. acknowledges partial support from NASA Solar System Observations grant 80NSSC19K0868. We thank the anonymous referee and D. Bockelée-Morvan for valuable comments that improved the manuscript. Facility: NASA IRTF (SpeX).

Funding Information:
Visiting Astronomer at the Infrared Telescope Facility, which is operated by the University of Hawaii under contract 80HQTR19D0030 with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021. The Author(s). Published by the American Astronomical Society.


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