Evolution of H2O production in comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) as inferred from forbidden oxygen and OH emission

Adam J. McKay, Anita L. Cochran, Michael A. DiSanti, Neil Dello Russo, Harold Weaver, Ronald J. Vervack, Walter M. Harris, Hideyo Kawakita

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


We present H2O production rates for comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) derived from observations of [O I] and OH emission during its inbound leg, covering a heliocentric distance range of 1.8–0.44 AU. Our production rates are in agreement with previous measurements using a variety of instruments and techniques and with data from the various observatories greatly differing in their projected fields of view. The consistent results across all data suggest the absence of an extended source of H2O production, for example sublimation of icy grains in the coma, or a source with spatial extent confined to the dimensions of the smallest projected field of view (in this case < 1000 km). We find that ISON had an active area of around 10 km2 for heliocentric distances Rh > 1.2 AU, which then decreased to about half this value from Rh = 1.2–0.9 AU. This was followed by a rapid increase in active area at about Rh = 0.6 AU, corresponding to the first of three major outbursts ISON experienced inside of 1 AU. The combination of a detected outburst in the light curve and rapid increase in active area likely indicates a major nucleus fragmentation event. The 5–10 km2 active area observed outside of Rh = 0.6 AU is consistent with a 50–100% active fraction for the nucleus, larger than typically observed for cometary nuclei. Although the absolute value of the active area is somewhat dependent on the thermal model employed, the changes in active area observed are consistent among models. The conclusion of a 50–100+% active fraction is robust for realistic thermal models of the nucleus. However the possibility of a contribution of a spatially unresolved distribution of icy grains cannot be discounted. As our [OI]-derived H2O production rates are consistent with values derived using other methods, we conclude that the contribution of O2 photodissociation to the observed [O I] emission is at most 5–10% that of the contribution of H2O for ISON. This is consistent with the expected contribution of O2 photodissociation if O2/H2O ∼ 4%, meaning [O I] emission can still be utilized as a reliable proxy for H2O production in comets as long as O2/H2O ≲ 4%, similar to the abundance measured by the ROSINA instrument on Rosetta at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
StatePublished - Jul 15 2018


  • Comets
  • Comets
  • Comets
  • coma
  • composition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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