Project B

Comet evolution: from the Kuiper Belt to a dormant comet in the near-Earth asteroid population

Rosita Kokotanekova & Anna Pala

(email advisors)

Recently Rosetta and New Horizons have revealed new details about the fascinating history of comets. Join our team to analyze telescope observations that will help us understand the Solar System past.

Comets are leftover building blocks from the epoch of planet formation which bear the signatures of all significant epochs in Solar System history. Comet nuclei are small icy bodies that formed in the outer regions of the protoplanetary nebula. After interacting with the migrating planets ~4 billion years ago, they were sent to the outskirts of the Solar System in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort cloud where they have remained essentially unchanged ever since. In the current epoch, gravitational interactions with the outer planets are thought to bring the comets from the Kuiper Belt back into the inner Solar system first as asteroids in the outer Solar system (also known as Centaurs) and later as Jupiter-Family comets. After a period of activity when the comets experience significant changes due to sublimation of their volatile content, some comet end their lives in spectacular disruptions, while others gradually lose their cometary activity and could be observed as dormant comets in the near-Earth asteroid population.

Every stage in this complex history is believed to produce significant changes in the physical properties of the comet nuclei. Identifying these signatures is crucial for understanding the lifecycle of comets and the history of the Solar system. Thanks to the Rosetta mission to comet 67P/C-G, we have a good understanding of the changes that comet nuclei experience during their active phase. Moreover, in January, the NASA spacecraft New Horizons will perform a fly by to a small body in the Kuiper Belt for the first time. This will provide us with a first glimpse an object which has very likely not experienced any significant changes since formation.

In this project, the student will investigate photometric observations of Jupiter-family comets, Centaurs and Kuiper Belt objects taken with ground-based telescopes. The main goal would be to compare the rotational and surface properties of the objects from the different populations. The results will be interpreted in the light of the recent discoveries from Rosetta and New Horizons. This analysis will be very timely as the results from the space missions will enable us to connect the different stages of comet evolution for the first time.

#comets  #SmallBodies  #SolarSystem  #photometry  #Lightcurves  #SurfaceProperties  #VLT  #NTT

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