Thermophysical Modelling and Mechanical Stability of Cometary Nuclei

Abstract: Comets are the most primordial and least evolved bodies in the Solar System. As such, they are unique sources of information regarding the early history of the Solar System. However, little is known about cometary nuclei since they are very difficult to observe due to the obscuring coma. Indirect methods are therefore often used to extract knowledge about nucleus parameters such as size, shape, density, material strength, and rotational properties. For example, tidal and non-tidal splitting of cometary nuclei can provide important information about nuclear densities and material strengths, but only if the criteria for mechanical stability are well known. Masses and densities of cometary nuclei can also be obtained by studying orbital modifications due to non-gravitational forces, but only if the thermophysics of comets can be modelled accurately. A detailed investigation is made regarding the mechanical stability of small Solar System bodies. New expressions for the Roche distance are derived, as functions of the size, shape, density, material strength, rotational period, and spin axis orientation of a body. The critical rotational period for centrifugal breakup in free space is also considered, and the resulting formulae are applied to comets for which the size, shape and rotational period have been estimated observationally, in order to place constraints on their densities and material strengths. A new thermophysical model of cometary nuclei is developed, focusing on two rarely studied features - layer absorption of solar energy, and parallel modelling of the nucleus and innermost coma. Sophisticated modelling of radiative transfer processes and the kinetics of gas in thermodynamic non-equilibrium form the basis for this work. The new model is applied to Comet 19P/Borrelly, and its density is estimated by reproducing the non-gravitational changes of its orbit.