The scattered disk as the source of the jupiter family comets

Kathryn Volk, Renu Malhotra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

104 Scopus citations


The short-period Jupiter family comets (JFCs) are thought to originate in the Kuiper Belt; specifically, a dynamical subclass of the Kuiper Belt known as the "scattered disk" is argued to be the dominant source of JFCs. However, the best estimates from observational surveys indicate that this source may fall short by more than 2 orders of magnitude of the estimates obtained from theoretical models of the dynamical evolution of Kuiper Belt objects into JFCs. We reexamine the scattered disk as a source of the JFCs and make a rigorous estimate of the discrepancy.We find that the uncertainties in the dynamical models combined with a change in the size distribution function of the scattered disk at faint magnitudes (small sizes) beyond the current observational limit offer a possible but problematic resolution to the discrepancy. We discuss several other possibilities: that the present population of JFCs is a large fluctuation above their long-term average, that larger scattered disk objects tidally break up into multiple fragments during close planetary encounters as their orbits evolve from the trans-Neptune zone to near Jupiter, or that there are alternative source populations that contribute significantly to the JFCs. Well-characterized observational investigations of the Centaurs, objects that are transitioning between the trans-Neptune Kuiper Belt region and the inner solar system, can test the predictions of the non-steady state and the tidal breakup hypotheses. The classical and resonant classes of the Kuiper Belt are worth reconsideration as significant additional or alternate sources of the JFCs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)714-725
Number of pages12
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Nov 1 2008


  • Comets: general
  • Kuiper belt

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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