Six outbursts of comet 46P/Wirtanen

Michael S. P. Kelley*, Tony L. Farnham, Jian-Yang Li, Dennis Bodewits, Colin Snodgrass, Johannes Allen, Eric C. Bellm, Michael W. Coughlin, Andrew J. Drake, Dmitry A. Duev, Matthew J. Graham, Thomas Kupfer, Frank J. Masci, Dan Reiley, Richard Walters, M. Dominik, U. G. Jørgensen, A. Andrews, N. Bach-Møller, V. BozzaM. J. Burgdorf, J. Campbell-White, S. Dib, Y. I. Fujii, T. C. Hinse, M. Hundertmark, E. Khalouei, P. Longa-Peña, M. Rabus, S. Rahvar, S. Sajadian, J. Skottfelt, J. Southworth, J. Tregloan-Reed, E. Unda-Sanzana

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Cometary activity is a manifestation of sublimation-driven processes at the surface of nuclei. However, cometary outbursts may arise from other processes that are not necessarily driven by volatiles. In order to fully understand nuclear surfaces and their evolution, we must identify the causes of cometary outbursts. In that context, we present a study of mini-outbursts of comet 46P/Wirtanen. Six events are found in our long-term lightcurve of the comet around its perihelion passage in 2018. The apparent strengths range from -0.2 to -1.6 mag in a 5" radius aperture, and correspond to dust masses between ∼104 to 106 kg, but with large uncertainties due to the unknown grain size distributions. However, the nominal mass estimates are the same order of magnitude as the mini-outbursts at comet 9P/Tempel 1 and 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, events which were notably lacking at comet 103P/Hartley 2. We compare the frequency of outbursts at the four comets, and suggest that the surface of 46P has large-scale (∼10-100 m) roughness that is intermediate to that of 67P and 103P, if not similar to the latter. The strength of the outbursts appear to be correlated with time since the last event, but a physical interpretation with respect to solar insolation is lacking. We also examine Hubble Space Telescope images taken about 2 days following a near-perihelion outburst. No evidence for macroscopic ejecta was found in the image, with a limiting radius of about 2 m.
Original languageEnglish
Article number131
Number of pages18
JournalThe Planetary Science Journal
Issue number4
Early online date21 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2021


  • Comets
  • Short period comets
  • Broad band photometry
  • Coma dust


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