Flying too close to the Sun – The viability of perihelion-induced aqueous alteration on periodic comets

Icarus (in Press) Link to Article []
1Planetary Materials Group, Department of Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, UK
2Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra, Università di Pisa, 56126 Pisa, Italy
3CISUP, Centro per l’Integrazione della Strumentazione dell’Università di Pisa, Lungarno Pacinotti 43, 56126 Pisa, Italy
4Impacts and Astromaterials Research Centre, Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London, South Kensington, London SW7 2AZ, UK
Copyright Elsevier

Comets are typically considered to be pristine remnants of the early solar system. However, by definition they evolve significantly over their lifetimes through evaporation, sublimation, degassing and dust release. This occurs once they enter the inner solar system and are heated by the Sun. Some comets (e.g. 1P/Halley, 9P/Tempel and Hale-Bopp) as well as chondritic porous cosmic dust – released from comets – show evidence of minor aqueous alteration resulting in the formation of phyllosilicates, carbonates or other secondary phases (e.g. Cu-sulphides, amphibole and magnetite). These observations suggest that (at least some) comets experienced limited interaction with liquid water under conditions distinct from the alteration histories of hydrated chondritic asteroids (e.g. the CM and CR chondrites).

This synthesis paper explores the viability of perihelion-induced heating as a mechanism for the generation of highly localised subsurface liquid water and thus mild aqueous alteration in periodic comets. We draw constraints from experimental laboratory studies, numerical modelling, spacecraft observations and microanalysis studies of cometary micrometeorites. Both temperature and pressure conditions necessary for the generation and short-term (hour-long) survival of liquid water are plausible within the immediate subsurface (<0.5 m depth) of periodic comets with small perihelia (<1.5 A.U.), low surface permeabilities and favourable rotational states (e.g. high obliquities and/or slow rotational periods). We estimate that solar radiant heating may generate liquid water and perform aqueous alteration reactions in 3–9% of periodic comets. An example of an ideal candidate is 2P/Encke which has a small perihelion (0.33 A.U.), a high obliquity and a short orbital period. This comet should therefore be considered a high priority candidate in future spectroscopic studies of comet surfaces. Small quantities of phyllosilicate generated by aqueous alteration may be important in cementing together grains in the subsurface of older dormant comets, thereby explaining observations of unexpectedly high tensile strength in some bodies.

Most periodic comets which currently pass close to the Sun are dormant, having experienced surface heating, significant cometary activity and dust release in the past. These bodies may be responsible for the partially hydrated cometary micrometeorites we find at the Earth’s surface and their aqueous alteration histories may have been produced by perihelion-induced subsurface heating. This is in contrast to radiogenic and impact heating that operated during the early solar system on asteroids. This study has implications for the alteration history of the active asteroid Phaethon, the target of JAXA’s DESTINY+ mission.


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