Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The evolution of comets in the Oort cloud and Kuiper belt

Abstract

Comets are remnants from the time when the outer planets formed, 4–4.5 billion years ago. They have been in storage since then in the Oort cloud and Kuiper belt—distant regions that are so cold and sparsely populated that it was long thought that comets approaching the Sun were pristine samples from the time of Solar System formation. It is now recognized, however, that a variety of subtle but important evolutionary mechanisms operate on comets during their long storage, so they can no longer be regarded as wholly pristine.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Diagram showing the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud to scale with our planetary system.

References

  1. Whipple, F. L. Origin of the comets. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 51, 711–715 (1964)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Mumma, M. I., Weissman, P. R. & Stern, S. A. in Protostars and Planets III (eds Levy, E. H., Lunine, J. I. & Matthews, M. S.) 1177–1252 (Univ. Arizona Press, Tucson, 1993)

    Google Scholar 

  3. Whipple, F. L. A comet model I: The acceleration of comet Encke. Astrophys. J. 111, 375–394 (1950)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Delsemme, A. H. in Comets, Asteroids, and Meteors: Interrelations, Evolution, and Origins (ed. Delsemme, A. H.) 3–12 (Univ. Toledo, Toledo, 1977)

    Google Scholar 

  5. Asphaug, E. & Benz, W. Size, density, and structure of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 inferred from the physics of tidal breakup. Icarus 121, 225–248 (1996)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Weissman, P. R., Asphaug, E. & Lowry, S. C. in Comets II (eds Festou, M. C., Keller, U. & Weaver, H. A.) (Univ. Arizona Press, Tucson, in the press)

  7. Prialnik, D. & Podolak, M. Changes in the structure of comet nuclei due to radioactive heating. Space Sci. Rev. 90, 169–215 (1999)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Oort, J. H. The structure of a cloud of comets surrounding the solar system and a hypothesis concerning its structure. Bull. Astron. Inst. Neth. 11, 91–110 (1950)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  9. Weissman, P. R. in Completing the Inventory of the Solar System (eds Rettig, T. W. & Hahn, J. M.) ASP Conf. Proc. 107, 265–288 (1996)

  10. Safronov, V. S. in Evolution of the Small Bodies of the Solar System (eds Fugchignoni, M. & Kresak, K.) 217–226 (North-Holland, Amsterdam, 1987)

    Google Scholar 

  11. Dones, L. et al. Simulations of the formation of the Oort Cloud. Icarus (submitted)

  12. Levison, H. F. & Duncan, M. J. The long-term dynamical behavior of short-period comets. Icarus 108, 18–36 (1994)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Duncan, M. J., Quinn, T. & Tremaine, S. The origin of the short period comets. Astrophys. J. 328, L69–L73 (1988)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Kuiper, G. P. in Astrophysics: A Topical Symposium (ed. Hynek, J. A.) 357–424 (McGraw Hill, New York, 1951)

    Google Scholar 

  15. Jewitt, D. C. & Luu, J. X. The discovery of the candidate Kuiper Belt object 1992QB1 . Nature 362, 730–732 (1993)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Meech, K. J. Chemical and physical aging of comets. IAU Colloq 173, (eds Svoren, J., Pittich, E. M. & Rickman, H.) 195–201 (Astronomical Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Tatranska Lomnica, 1999)

    Google Scholar 

  17. Delsemme, A. H. in Comets (ed. Wilkening, L. L.) 85–131 (Univ. Arizona Press, Tucson, 1982)

    Google Scholar 

  18. Belton, M., et al. New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy. Solar System Exploration Survey 457 (National Academies Press, Washington, 2002)

    Google Scholar 

  19. Weissman, P. R. The Oort Cloud. Nature 344, 825–830 (1990)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Stern, S. A. & Shull, J. M. The influence of supernovae and passing stars on comets in the Oort cloud. Nature 332, 407–411 (1988)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Klinger, J. in Ices in the Solar System (eds Klinger, J., Benest, D., Dollfus, A. & Smoluchowski, R.) 407–417 (D. Reidel, Dordrecht, 1985)

    Google Scholar 

  22. Kouchi, A. et al. Extremely low thermal conductivity of amorphous ice: Relevance to comet evolution. Astrophys. J. 388, L73–L76 (1992)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Mumma, M. J. in From Stardust to Planetesimals (eds Pendleton, Y.J. & Tielens, A.G.G.M.) ASP Conf. Ser. 122, 369–396 (1997).

  24. Weaver, H. A. et al. A Search for argon and O VI in three comets using the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer. Astrophys. J. 576, L95–L98 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Stern, S. A. Collisions in the Oort Cloud. Icarus 73, 499–507 (1988)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Stern, S. A. & Weissman, P. R. Rapid collisional evolution of comets during the formation of the Oort cloud. Nature 401, 589–591 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Farinella, P., Davis, D. R. & Stern, S. A. in Protostars and Planets IV (eds Mannings, V., Boss, A. P. & Russell, S. S.) 125–133 (Univ. Arizona Press, Tucson, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

  28. Durda, D. D. & Stern, S. A. Collision rates in the present-day Kuiper Belt and Centaur Regions: Applications to surface activation and modification on comets, KBOs, and Pluto-Charon. Icarus 45, 220–229 (2000)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. O'Del, C. R. A new model for cometary nuclei. Icarus 19, 137–146 (1973)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Whipple, F. L. in Comets, Asteroids and Meteors (ed. Delsemme, A.) 25–34 (Univ. Toledo Press, Toledo, 1977)

    Google Scholar 

  31. Stern, S. A. The effects of mechanical interaction between the interstellar medium and comets. Icarus 68, 276–283 (1986)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Lissauer, J. J. & Griffith, C. A. Erosion of circumstellar particle disks by interstellar dust. Astrophys. J. 340, 468–471 (1989)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Stern, S. A. ISM-induced erosion and gas-dynamical drag in the Oort Cloud. Icarus 84, 447–466 (1990)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Johnson, R. E. Energetic Charged-Particle Interactions with Atmospheres and Surfaces 232 (Springer, New York, 1990)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  35. Throop, H. B. Light Scattering and Evolution of Protoplanetary Disks and Planetary Rings 1–162, (PhD thesis, Univ. Colorado (2000)

    Google Scholar 

  36. Greenberg, J. M. in Comets (ed. Wilkening, L. L.) 131–164 (Univ. Arizona Press, Tucson, 1982)

    Google Scholar 

  37. Thompson, W. R., Murray, B. G. J. P. T., Khare, B. N. & Sagan, C. Coloration and darkening of methane clathrate and other ices by charged particle irradiation: Applications to the outer solar system. J. Geophys. Res. 92, 14933–14947 (1987)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Hudson, R. L. & Moore, M. H. Energetic processing of laboratory ice analogs: UV photolysis versus ion bombardment. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 33381–33386 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Gerakines, P. A., Moore, M. H. & Hudson, R. L. Radiation chemical alterations in solar system ices: An overview. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 33275–33284 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Strazzula, G. in Composition and Origin of Cometary Materials (eds Altwegg, K., Ehrenfreund, P., Geiss, J. & Huebner, W.) 269–274 (Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1999)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  41. Schwandron, N. et al. The Outer source of pickup ions and anomalous cosmic rays. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, 1993–1996 (2002)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

I thank D. Boice, L. Dones, D. Durda, K. Meech, H. Throop and P. Weissman for comments on this article.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to S. Alan Stern.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The author declares that he has no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Alan Stern, S. The evolution of comets in the Oort cloud and Kuiper belt . Nature 424, 639–642 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01725

Download citation

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01725

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing