William Herschel Telescope observations of distant comets

Stephen Lowry, Alan Fitzsimmons

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39 Citations (Scopus)


We present results from broad-band V- and R-filter observations obtained at the 4.2-m William Herschel Telescope on La Palma on 2002 July 12-14. A total of six comets were imaged, and their heliocentric distances ranged from 2.8 to 6.1 au. The comets observed were 43P/Wolf-Harrington, 129P/Shoemaker-Levy 3, 133P/Elst-Pizarro, 143P/Kowal-Mrkos, P/1998 U4 (Spahr) and P/2001 H5 (NEAT). A detailed surface brightness profile analysis indicates that three of the targeted comets (43P/Wolf-Harrington, 129P/Shoemaker-Levy 3 and P/1998 U4) were visibly active, and the remaining three comets were stellar in appearance. Further analysis shows that for the three `stellar-like' comets the possible coma contribution to the observed flux does not exceed 12.2 per cent, and in the case of comet 143P/Kowal-Mrkos the coma contribution is expected to be as low as 1 per cent, and so the resulting photometry most likely represents that of the projected nucleus surface. Effective radii for the inactive comets range from 1.02 to 4.56 km, and the effective radius upper limits for the active comets range from 1.94 to 4.15 km. We assume an albedo and phase coefficient of 0.04 and 0.035 mag deg-1, respectively, with the exception of comets 133P/Elst-Pizarro and 143P/Kowal-Mrkos for which phase coefficients were previously measured. These values are compared with previous measurements, and for comet 43P/Wolf-Harrington we find that the nucleus axial ratio a/b could be as large as 2.44. For the active comets we measured dust production levels in terms of the Af? quantity. Spectral gradients were extracted for two of the inactive comets from their measured broad-band colour indices, and compared with the rest of the comet population for which (V-R) colour and spectral gradient values exist. We find a spectral gradient for 143P/Kowal-Mrkos of 9.9 +/- 8.1 per cent/100 nm, which is very typical of Jupiter-family comets, the majority of which have reflectivity gradients in the range 0-13 per cent (100 nm)-1. The spectral gradient for comet 133P/Elst-Pizarro is amongst the bluest yet measured. We measure a (V-R) colour index value of 0.14 +/- 0.11 for the nucleus of 133P/Elst-Pizarro which is considerably lower than previous measurements. A possible explanation for this difference is considered.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)641-650
Number of pages10
JournalMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 01 Apr 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Space and Planetary Science


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