The activities of comets related to their aging and origin

  • Fred L. Whipple
Invited Papers


Two indices have been developed for the purpose of comparing the natures of various classes of comets. The first is the Activity Index (AI), measuring the inherent magnitude increase in brightness from great solar distances to maximum near perihelion. The second, or Volatility Index (VI), measures the variation in magnitude near perihelion. Tentative determinations of these two indices are derived from observations by Max Beyer over more than 30 years for long-period (L-P) and short-period (S-P) comets near perihelion and from other homogeneous sources. AI determinations are made for 32 long-period (L-P) comets and for 14 short-period (S-P). The range of values of AI is of the order of 3 to 10 magnitudes with a median about 6. An expected strong correlation with perihelion distance q, is found to vary as ∼ q−2.3. Residuals from a least-square solution (ΔAI) are used for comparing comets of different orbital classes, the standard deviation of a single value of ΔAI is only ±1m.1 for L-P comets and ±1m.2 for S-P comets.

Among the L-P comets, 19 of period P larger than 104 years yield 〈ΔAI〉 = 0m.27 ± 0m.25 compared to 0m.39 ± 0m.26 for 13 of period between 102 years and 104 years. This denies any fading with aging among the L-P comets. Also no systematic change with period occurs for the VI index, leading to the same conclusions. Weak correlations are found with the Gas/Dust ratio of comets. No correlations are found between the two indices, nor of either index with near-perihelion magnitudes or orbital inclination.

The various data are consistent with a uniform origin for all types of comets, the nuclei being homogeneous on the large scale but quite diverse on a small scale (the order of a fraction of kilometer in extent). Small comets thus may sublimate away entirely, leaving no solid core, while huge comets may develop a less volatile core by radioactive heating and possibly become inactive like asteroids after many S-P revolutions about the Sun. When relatively new, huge comets may be quite active at great solar distances because of volatiles from the core that have refrozen in the outer layers.

Key words

Comets aging of comets activity of comets 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Fred L. Whipple
    • 1
  1. 1.Smithsonian Astrophysical ObservatoryCambridgeU.S.A.

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