The main-belt comets: The Pan-STARRS1 perspective

Henry H. Hsieh, Larry Denneau, Richard J. Wainscoat, Norbert Schörghofer, Bryce Bolin, Alan Fitzsimmons, Robert Jedicke, Jan Kleyna, Marco Micheli, Peter Vereš, Nicholas Kaiser, Kenneth C. Chambers, William S. Burgett, Heather Flewelling, Klaus W. Hodapp, Eugene A. Magnier, Jeffrey S. Morgan, Paul A. Price, John L. Tonry, Christopher Waters

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)


We analyze a set of 760 475 observations of 333 026 unique main-belt objects obtained by the Pan-STARRS1(PS1) survey telescope between 2012 May 20 and 2013 November 9, a period during which PS1 discoveredtwo main-belt comets, P/2012 T1 (PANSTARRS) and P/2013 R3 (Catalina-PANSTARRS). PS1 cometdetection procedures currently consist of the comparison of the point spread functions (PSFs) of movingobjects to those of reference stars, and the flagging of objects that show anomalously large radial PSFwidths for human evaluation and possible observational follow-up. Based on the number of missed discoveryopportunities among comets discovered by other observers, we estimate an upper limit comet discoveryefficiency rate of 70% for PS1. Additional analyses that could improve comet discovery yields infuture surveys include linear PSF analysis, modeling of trailed stellar PSFs for comparison to trailed movingobject PSFs, searches for azimuthally localized activity, comparison of point-source-optimized photometryto extended-source-optimized photometry, searches for photometric excesses in objects withknown absolute magnitudes, and crowd-sourcing. Analysis of the discovery statistics of the PS1 surveyindicates an expected fraction of 59 MBCs per 106 outer main-belt asteroids (corresponding to a totalexpected population of 140 MBCs among the outer main-belt asteroid population with absolute magnitudesof 12 < HV < 19:5), and a 95% confidence upper limit of 96 MBCs per 106 outer main-belt asteroids(corresponding to a total of 230 MBCs), assuming a detection efficiency of 50%. We note howeverthat significantly more sensitive future surveys (particularly those utilizing larger aperture telescopes)could detect many more MBCs than estimated here. Examination of the orbital element distribution ofall known MBCs reveals an excess of high eccentricities (0:1 < e < 0:3) relative to the background asteroidpopulation. Theoretical calculations show that, given these eccentricities, the sublimation rate for atypical MBC is orders of magnitude larger at perihelion than at aphelion, providing a plausible physicalexplanation for the observed behavior of MBCs peaking in observed activity strength near perihelion.These results indicate that the overall rate of mantle growth should be slow, consistent with observationalevidence that MBC activity can be sustained over multiple orbit passages.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)289-312
Number of pages14
Early online date04 Nov 2014
Publication statusPublished - 01 Mar 2015


  • Asteroids
  • Comets
  • Astrobiology
  • composition
  • origin


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