Origin of oort cloud comets in the interstellar space

  • Mauri J. Valtonen
  • Jia-Qing Zheng
  • Seppo Mikkola
Invited Papers


Comets must form a major part of the interstellar medium. The solar system provides a flux of comets into the interstellar space and there is no reason to suspect that many other stars and their surrounding cometary systems would not make a similar contribution. Occasionally interstellar comets must pass through the inner solar system, but Whipple (1975) considers it unlikely that such a comet is among the known cases of apparently hyperbolic comets. Even so the upper limit for the density of unobserved interstellar comets is relatively high.

In addition, we must consider the possibility that comets are a genuine component of interstellar medium, and that the Oort Cloud is merely a captured part of it (McCrea, 1975). Here we review various dynamical possibilities of two-way exchange of comet populations between the Solar System and the interstellar medium. We describe ways in which a traditional Oort Cloud (Oort, 1950) could be captured from the interstellar medium. However, we note that the so called Kuiper belt (Kuiper, 1951) of comets cannot arise through this process. Therefore we have to ask how necessary the concept of the yet unobserved Kuiper belt is for the theory of short period comets.

There has been considerable debate about the question whether short period comets can be understood as a captured population of the Oort Cloud of comets or whether an additional source has to be postulated. The problem is made difficult by the long integration times of comet orbits through the age of the Solar System. It would be better to have an accurate treatment of comet-planet encounters in a statistical sense, in the form of cross sections, and to carry out Monte Carlo studies. Here we describe the plan of action and initial results of the work to derive cross sections by carrying out large numbers of comet — planet encounters and by deriving approximate analytic expressions for them. Initially comets follow parabolic orbits of arbitrary inclination and perihelion distance; cross sections are derived for obtaining orbits of given energy and inclination after the encounter. The results are used in subsequent work to make evolutionary models of the comet population.

Key words

Oort cloud comets origin of comets capture of comets interstellar comets 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mauri J. Valtonen
    • 1
  • Jia-Qing Zheng
    • 1
  • Seppo Mikkola
    • 1
  1. 1.Tuorla ObservatoryUniversity of TurkuFinland

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