Periodic Comets

The Catalog of Cometary Orbits, compiled by astronomer Brian Marsden, remains the standard reference for orbital statistics. Its 1989 edition lists 1,292 computed orbits from 239 BCE to 1989 CE; only 91 of them were computed using the rare accurate historical data from before the 17th century. More than 1,200 are therefore derived from cometary passages during the last three centuries. The 1,292 cometary apparitions of Marsden's catalog involve only 810 individual comets; the remainder represents the repeated returns of periodic comets.

Periodic comets are usually divided into short-period comets (those with periods of less than 200 years) and long-period comets (those with periods of more than 200 years). Of the 155 short-period comets, 93 have been observed at two or more perihelion passages. Four of these comets have been definitely lost, and three more are probably lost, presumably because of their decay in the solar heat. Some authors have found it advantageous to change the definition of short-period comets by diminishing their longest-period cutoff to 20 years. This leaves 135 short-period comets (new style) in the Catalog; the 20 others having periods between 20 and 200 years are called intermediate-period comets.

These two new classes are separated by a small period gap. The average short-period comet has a seven-year period, a perihelion distance of 1.5 AU, and a small inclination (13°) on the ecliptic. All short-period comets (new style) revolve in the direct (prograde) sense around the Sun, just as the planets do. The intermediate-period comets have on average a larger inclination of the ecliptic, and five of them turn around the Sun in a retrograde direction. The most famous of the latter is 1P/Halley (30 appearances). Eleven of the 20 intermediate-period comets have been observed during a single appearance.

The comets with long-period orbits are distributed at random in all directions of the sky, and roughly half of them turn in the retrograde direction. Of the 655 comets of long period contained in the Catalog, 192 have osculating elliptic orbits, and 122 have osculating orbits that are very slightly hyperbolic. Finally, 341 are listed as having parabolic orbits, but this is rather fallacious because either it has not been possible to detect unequivocal deviations from a parabola on the (sometimes very short) arc along which the comets have been observed or, more simply, the final calculations have never been made. The parabola is always assumed first in the preliminary computation as it is easier to deal with. If the osculating orbit is computed backward to when the comet was still far beyond the orbit of Neptune and if the orbit is then referred to the centre of mass of the solar system, the original orbits almost always prove to be elliptic. (The centre of mass of the solar system is different from the centre of the Sun primarily because of the position of massive Jupiter.) Twenty-two original orbits remain (nominally) slightly hyperbolic beyond the orbit of Neptune, but 19 remain not significantly different from a parabola. Even the three that are significantly different near 50 AU are likely to become elliptic when they are 50,000 or 100,000 AU from the Sun. The reason is that, though the mass of the Oort cloud remains uncertain, it should be added to the mass of the inner solar system to compute the orbits. The smallest possible mass of the Oort cloud is likely to transform the orbits into ellipses. It is thus reasonable to believe that all observed comets were initially in elliptic orbits bound to the solar system. Accordingly, all parabolic and nearly parabolic comets are thought to be comets of very long period.

The future orbit of a long-period comet is obtained when the osculating orbit is computed forward to when the comet will be leaving the planetary system (beyond the orbit of Neptune) and is referred to the centre of mass of the solar system. Because of the planetary perturbations, slightly more than half of the future orbits become strongly elliptic, whereas slightly less than half become strongly hyperbolic. Roughly half of the long-period comets are thus "captured" by the solar system on more strongly bound orbits; the other half are permanently ejected out of the system.

Among the very-long-period comets, there is a particular class that Oort showed as having never passed through the planetary system before (see above), notwithstanding the fact that their original orbits were elliptic, which implies repeated passages. This paradox vanishes when it is understood that their perihelia were outside of the planetary system before their first appearance but that their orbits have been perturbed near aphelia (either by stellar or dark interstellar-cloud passages or by galactic tides) in such a way that their perihelia were lowered into the planetary system. The first passage of a "new" comet is usually brighter than an average passage (a large fraction of the famous bright historical comets were such new comets). This is possibly explained by the presence of more volatile gases and of a larger component of very fine dust. The most volatile gases may have disappeared during subsequent passages, and the finest dust may have agglomerated into larger dust grains that reflect less light for the same production rate. About 90 comets have been identified as new in long-period orbits. If the same proportion exists in the poorly computed parabolic orbits, the total must be close to 170 new comets in Marsden's catalog, but 80 of them have not been identified.

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