Origin and Evolution of Cometary Nuclei

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One of the key goals of the Rosetta mission was to understand how, where and when comets formed in our solar system. There are two major hypotheses for the origin of comets, both pre-Rosetta: (1) hierarchical accretion of dust and ice grains in the Solar Nebula and (2) the growth of pebbles, which are then brought together by streaming instabilities in the Solar Nebula to form larger bodies. Rosetta provided a wealth of new information on comet nuclei and confirmed many past ideas on comets, e.g., high volatile content, lack of aqueous alteration of grains, and the low bulk density of the nucleus. Rosetta also provided new data on the nature of cometary activity, the active geology on the nucleus surface and the interior structure and bulk density of the nucleus. Supporters of the above-mentioned origin hypotheses each find confirmation of their ideas in the Rosetta results. But the question of which hypothesis is preferred, or if there are other, better hypotheses that could be invoked, could not be answered. Theoretical studies suggest that comet nuclei were collisionally processed in the Primordial Disk though it is not clear that the nuclei we see today display the effects of that process. Both theoretical and observational studies suggest that the major end-states for cometary nuclei are dynamical ejection, random disruption and disintegration, and/or evolution of nuclei to inactive, asteroidal-appearing objects. Rosetta has provided us with many new insights that will help to guide future cometary missions, observations, experiments and theoretical investigations that will lead to answers to the fundamental questions with regard to cometary origin.

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    The Tisserand parameter, \(T\), is a pseudo-constant of the motion in the restricted 3-body problem (Sun-Jupiter-comet) that is used to identify returning JFCs even though their orbits may have been changed by a close approach to Jupiter. Typically, comets have \(T\) values \(< 3\), while asteroids have \(T > 3\).


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We thank the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful and constructive comments and suggestions. PRW thanks the U.S. Social Security Administration for financial support while writing this paper. BD’s part of this paper was performed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory under contract with NASA. JB thanks the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) for continuous support.

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Comets: Post 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko Perspectives

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Weissman, P., Morbidelli, A., Davidsson, B. et al. Origin and Evolution of Cometary Nuclei. Space Sci Rev 216, 6 (2020) doi:10.1007/s11214-019-0625-7

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  • Comet, origin
  • Hierarchical accretion
  • Agglomeration
  • Pebbles
  • Streaming instabilities
  • Evolution
  • End-states
  • Primordial disk
  • Collisional evolution