Comet gateway discovered to inner solar system, may alter fundamental understanding of comet evolution

phys.org | 7/25/2013 | Staff
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A new study led by a University of Central Florida researcher may fundamentally alter our understanding of how comets arrive from the outskirts of the solar system and are funneled to the inner solar system coming closer to Earth.

In a study to be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters this week, scientist Gal Sarid and co-authors describe the discovery of an orbital "gateway" through which many comets pass before they approach our sun. The gateway was uncovered as part of a simulation of centaurs, small icy bodies traveling on chaotic orbits between Jupiter and Neptune. The study team modeled the evolution of bodies from beyond Neptune's orbit, through the giant planet's region, and inside Jupiter's orbit. These icy bodies are considered nearly pristine remnants of material from the birth of our solar system.

Time - Pathway - Comets - Formation - Location

For a long time, the pathway of comets from their original formation location inward toward the sun has been debated.

"How do new comets, controlled by Jupiter's influence, replace those that are lost? Where is the transition between residing in the outer solar system, as small dormant bodies, and becoming active inner solar system bodies, exhibiting a widespread gas and dust coma and tail?" asks Sarid, the lead scientist for the study. These questions remained a mystery until now. "What we discovered, the gateway model as a 'cradle of comets,' will change the way we think about the history of icy bodies," he says.

Centaurs - Kuiper - Belt - Region - Neptune

Centaurs are thought to originate in the Kuiper Belt region beyond Neptune and are considered as the source of Jupiter Family Comets, which occupy the inner solar system. The chaotic nature of centaur orbits obscures their exact pathways making it difficult to predict their future as comets. When icy bodies such as centaurs or comets approach the sun, they begin to release gas and dust to...
(Excerpt) Read more at: phys.org
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