Radar observations of comets

J. K. Harmon, D. B. Campbell, S. J. Ostro, M. C. Nolan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Seven comets have been detected by Earth-based radars during the period 1980-1998. All but one of these gave a detectable echo from the nucleus, while three of the comets also showed a broad-band echo from large (∼cm-size) grains in the inner coma. Although all observations have been of the CW (continuous-wave) type, which precludes direct size measurement, the radar cross sections are consistent with nucleus diameters averaging a few kilometers and varying over a range of ten. Comparisons with independent size estimates indicate relatively low radar albedos, implying nucleus surface densities of 0.5 to 1 g/cm3. The surfaces of comet nuclei appear to be as rough as typical asteroid surfaces, but are considerably less dense. Analysis of coma echoes indicates that some comets emit large grains at rates (∼ton/s) which are comparable with their gas and dust production rates. There is also some indirect evidence for grain evaporation or fragmentation within a few hundred to a few thousand kilometers of the nucleus. The highest priority of future radar observations will be to obtain delay-Doppler images of a nucleus, which would give direct size and shape estimates as well as a more reliable albedo. Delay-Doppler or interferometric imaging of the coma echo would also help to better characterize the grain halo. Ten short-period comets are potentially detectable during the next two decades, although the best radar opportunities may well come from comets yet to be discovered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1409-1422
Number of pages14
JournalPlanetary and Space Science
Issue number12
StatePublished - 1999
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Radar observations of comets'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this