Comet P/2021 HS (PANSTARRS) and the Challenge of Detecting Low-activity Comets

March 2023 • 2023PSJ.....4...47Y

Authors • Ye, Quanzhi • Kelley, Michael S. P. • Bauer, James M. • Farnham, Tony L. • Bodewits, Dennis • Buzzi, Luca • Weryk, Robert • Masci, Frank J. • Medford, Michael S. • Riddle, Reed • Wold, Avery

Abstract • Jupiter-family comet (JFC) P/2021 HS (PANSTARRS) only exhibits a coma within a few weeks of its perihelion passage at 0.8 au, which is atypical for a comet. Here we present an investigation into the underlying cause using serendipitous survey detections and targeted observations. We find that the detection of the activity is caused by an extremely faint coma being enhanced by the forward scattering effect owing to the comet reaching a phase angle of ~140°. The coma morphology is consistent with sustained, sublimation-driven activity produced by a small active area, ~700 m2, one of the smallest values ever measured on a comet. The phase function of the nucleus shows a phase coefficient of 0.035 ± 0.002 mag deg-1, implying an absolute magnitude of H = 18.31 ± 0.04 and a phase slope of G = - 0.13, with color consistent with typical JFC nuclei. Thermal observations suggest a nucleus diameter of 0.6-1.1 km, implying an optical albedo of 0.04-0.23, which is higher than typical cometary nuclei. An unsuccessful search for dust trail and meteor activity confirms minimal dust deposit along the orbit, totaling ≲108 kg. As P/2021 HS is dynamically unstable, similar to typical JFCs, we speculate that it has an origin in the trans-Neptunian region and that its extreme depletion of volatiles is caused by a large number of previous passages to the inner solar system. The dramatic discovery of the cometary nature of P/2021 HS highlights the challenges of detecting comets with extremely low activity levels. Observations at high phase angle, where forward scattering is pronounced, will help identify such comets.


IPAC Authors

Frank Masci

Senior Scientist