Comet outbursts and polymers of HCN

Terrence W. Rettig, Stephen C. Tegler, Daniel J. Pasto, Michael J. Mumma

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


Dramatic cometary outbursts have been noted by observers for many years. These outbursts can sometimes increase the apparent brightness of a comet up to 9 mag and release energy on the order of 1019 ergs. A number of mechanisms have been suggested for outburst activity; however, none has been generally accepted. HCN is a known constituent of both interstellar icy grain mantles and cometary nuclei, and HCN polymers have been postulated to exist on the dark surface of comets such as P/Halley. Since polymerization is a strongly exothermic process, we investigate the possibility that HCN polymerization can provide the energy needed for outbursts. Polymerization may be continuing in the inhomogeneous interior of comets. In addition, the reactive CN groups in these oligomers can be hydrolyzed and may contribute to CO2 and CO pressure buildup in the interior of comets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)293-298
Number of pages6
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1992


  • Comets: general
  • Molecular processes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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