End Products of Cometary Evolution: Cometary Origin of Earth-Crossing Bodies of Asteroidal Appearance

  • G. W. Wetherill
Part of the Astrophysics and Space Science Library book series (ASSL, volume 167)


Because there is no necessary connection between the time required to remove the volatile component of a cometary nucleus by solar heating (physical lifetime) and the dynamical lifetime of a comet, it is possible that a comet may evolve into an observable object of asteroidal appearance. Almost all comets have dynamical lifetimes much shorter than their physical lifetimes and in these cases complete loss of volatiles will not occur. Mechanisms do exist, however, whereby a small but significant fraction of comets will have longer dynamical lifetimes, permitting them to evolve first into Jupiter-family short period comets and then into comets with relatively safe decoupled orbits interior to Jupiter’s orbit. Observed Jupiter-family objects of asteroidal appearance (e.g., 1983SA) are much more likely to be of cometary rather than asteroidal origin. “Decoupling” is facilitated by several mechanisms: perturbations by the terrestrial planets, perturbations by Jupiter and the other giant planets (including resonant perturbations) and non-gravitational orbital changes caused by the loss of gas and dust from the comet. The dynamical time scale for decoupling is probably 105–106 years and almost all decoupled comets are likely to be of asteroidal appearance. Once decoupled, the orbits of the resulting Apollo-Amor objects will evolve on a longer (107–108 year) time scale, and the orbital evidence for these objects having originally been comets rather than asteroids will nearly disappear. Statistically, however, a large fraction of the bodies in deep Earth-crossing orbits with semi-major axes ≳ 2.2 AU are likely to be cometary objects in orbits that have not yet diffused into the steady state distribution. For plausible values of the relevant parameters, estimates can be made of the number of cometary Apollo-Amor “asteroids,” the observed number of Earth-crossing active and inactive short period comets, and the production rate of short period comets. These estimates are compatible with other theoretical and observational inferences that suggest the presence of a significant population of Apollo objects that formerly were active comets.


Monte Carlo Calculation Terrestrial Planet Cometary Nucleus Orbital Evolution Secular Resonance 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • G. W. Wetherill
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Terrestrial MagnetismCarnegie Institution of WashingtonWashingtonUSA

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