The HCN molecule as a tracer of the nucleus rotation of comet 73P-C/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3*
Max-Planck-Institut für Sonnensystemforschung, 37191 Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
2 European Space Astronomy Centre, ESA, 28691 Villanueva de la Cañada, Madrid, Spain
3 NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, MD-20771 Greenbelt, USA
Accepted: 30 March 2009
Context. The causes of cometary break-ups are still uncertain. One suggested mechanism is splitting due to fast rotation of the nucleus. This can be tested by measuring rotation periods of cometary fragments.
Aims. The exceptionally close approach of the split comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 to the Earth in May 2006 made it an ideal target to investigate the rotation of its fragments. We used the HCN light curve for this purpose, because it is particularly sensitive to the rotation of the nucleus and at the same time it allows us to study the physics of cometary activity.
Methods. Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 was observed between May 1 and 22, 2006, with the Submillimeter Telescope on Mt. Graham, Arizona, USA. Emission from HCN and CS were clearly detected. In this work we focus exclusively on the observations of the HCN molecule in fragment C, obtained during five nights between May 10 and 22, 2006, which provide the best S/N and the best temporal coverage.
Results. The light curve of comet 73P-C/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 in HCN shows strong non-random variations, most probably stimulated by the nucleus rotation. The variability has an amplitude of about a factor of 2 on a time scale of hours. Among several plausible solutions for periodicity, we found strong indications for a rotation period of between 3.0 and 3.4 h, consistent with the determination from the Hubble Space Telescope. At 1 AU from the Sun the mean-diurnal HCN production rate was 2.7 1025 molec s-1 (with an uncertainty of about 20%) and the coma was expanding with a velocity of 0.8 ± 0.1 km s-1. The line position was evolving with a phase angle that is visible in the night-averaged spectra.
Conclusions. Evolution of the line position is consistent with the solar-stimulated activity. The mean-diurnal HCN production rate should be considered as very high, and it requires an unusually large fraction of the nucleus area to be active, whereas the coma expansion velocity was typical. The proposed rotation period, being the shortest ever determined for a cometary nucleus, cautiously suggests the disruption of the parent body due to a large centrifugal force, though it cannot be considered as a proof of this scenario. On the other hand, the observed stability of 73P-C against the rotational disruption suggests a bulk tensile strength of at least 14–45 Pa. The rotation period was surprisingly stable, indicating that no more than about 0.2% of the total outgassing was effectively accelerating or decelerating the nucleus spin. This is consistent with the large active fraction of the nucleus.
Key words: comets: individual: 73P-C/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 / submillimeter: planetary systems
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