Water, hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, and dust production from distant comet 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 1

D. Bockelée-Morvan*, N. Biver, C. A. Schambeau, J. Crovisier, C. Opitom, M. de Val Borro, E. Lellouch, P. Hartogh, B. Vandenbussche, E. Jehin, M. Kidger, M. Küppers, D. C. Lis, R. Moreno, S. Szutowicz, V. Zakharov

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Context. 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 1 is a distant Centaur/comet, showing persistent CO-driven activity and frequent outbursts.

Aims. We aim to better characterize its gas and dust activity from multiwavelength observations performed during outbursting and quiescent states.

Methods. We used the HIFI, PACS and SPIRE instruments of the Herschel space observatory on several dates in 2010, 2011, and 2013 to observe the H2O 557 GHz and NH3 573 GHz lines and to image the dust coma in the far-infrared. Observations with the IRAM 30 m telescope were undertaken in 2007, 2010, 2011, and 2021 to monitor the CO production rate through the 230 GHz line, and to search for HCN at 89 GHz. The 70 and 160 µm PACS images were used to measure the thermal flux from the nucleus and the dust coma. Modeling was performed to constrain the size of the sublimating icy grains and to derive the dust production rate.

Results. HCN is detected for the first time in comet 29P (at 5σ in the line area). H2O is detected as well, but not NH3. H2O and HCN line shapes differ strongly from the CO line shape, indicating that these two species are released from icy grains. CO production rates are in the range (2.9–5.6) × 1028 s−1 (1400–2600 kg s−1). A correlation between the CO production rate and coma brightness is observed, as is a correlation between CO and H2O production. The correlation obtained between the excess of CO production and excess of dust brightness with respect to the quiescent state is similar to that established for the continuous activity of comet Hale-Bopp. The measured Q(H2O)/Q(CO) and Q(HCN)/Q(CO) production rate ratios are 10.0 ± 1.5 % and 0.12 ± 0.03 %, respectively, averaging the April-May 2010 measurements (Q(H2O) = (4.1 ± 0.6) × 1027 s−1, Q(HCN) = (4.8 ± 1.1) × 1025 s−1). We derive three independent and similar values of the effective radius of the nucleus, ~31 ± 3 km, suggesting an approximately spherical shape. The inferred dust mass-loss rates during quiescent phases are in the range 30–120 kg s−1, indicating a dust-to-gas mass ratio <0.1 during quiescent activity. We conclude that strong local heterogeneities exist on the surface of 29P, with quenched dust activity from most of the surface, but not in outbursting regions.

Conclusions. The volatile composition of the atmosphere of 29P strongly differs from that of comets observed within 3 au from the Sun. The observed correlation between CO, H2O and dust activity may provide important constraints for the outburst-triggering mechanism.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberA95
Pages (from-to)1-27
Number of pages27
JournalAstronomy and Astrophysics
Publication statusPublished - 12 Aug 2022


  • astro-ph.EP
  • Comets: general
  • Infrared: planetary systems
  • Radio lines: planetary systems
  • Comets: individual: 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 1


Dive into the research topics of 'Water, hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, and dust production from distant comet 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 1'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this