Why did Comet 17P/Holmes burst out?
Nucleus splitting or delayed sublimation?W. J. Altenhoff1, E. Kreysa1, K. M. Menten1, A. Sievers2, C. Thum3, and A. Weiss1
1 Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Auf dem Hügel 69, 53121 Bonn, Germany
2 IRAM, Pico Veleta, Granada, Spain
3 IRAM, University campus, 38406 St. Martin d'Herès, France
Received 25 June 2008 / Accepted 15 December 2008
Based on millimeter-wavelength continuum observations we suggest that the recent “spectacle” of comet 17P/Holmes can be explained by a thick, air-tight dust cover and the effects of H2O sublimation, which started when the comet arrived at the heliocentric distance 2.5 AU. The porous structure inside the nucleus provided enough surface for additional sublimation, which eventually led to the break up of the dust cover and to the observed outburst. The magnitude of the particle burst can be explained by the energy provided by insolation, stored in the dust cover and the nucleus within the months before the outburst: the subliming surface within the nucleus is more than one order of magnitude larger than the geometric surface of the nucleus – possibly an indication of the latter's porous structure. Another surprise is that the abundance ratios of several molecular species with respect to H2O are variable. During this apparition, comet Holmes lost about 3% of its mass, corresponding to a “dirty ice” layer of 20 m.
Key words: comets: general -- comets: individual: 17P/Holmes
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