The discovery of cometary activity in near-earth asteroid (3552) don quixote

Michael Mommert, Joseph L. Hora, Alan W. Harris, William T. Reach, Joshua P. Emery, Cristina A. Thomas, Michael Mueller, Dale P. Cruikshank, David E. Trilling, Marco Delbo, Howard A. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


The near-Earth object (NEO) population, which mainly consists of fragments from collisions between asteroids in the main asteroid belt, is thought to include contributions from short-period comets as well. One of the most promising NEO candidates for a cometary origin is near-Earth asteroid (3552) Don Quixote, which has never been reported to show activity. Here we present the discovery of cometary activity in Don Quixote based on thermal-infrared observations made with the Spitzer Space Telescope in its 3.6 and 4.5 μm bands. Our observations clearly show the presence of a coma and a tail in the 4.5 μm but not in the 3.6 μm band, which is consistent with molecular band emission from CO2. Thermal modeling of the combined photometric data on Don Quixote reveals a diameter of 18.4+0.3-0.4 km and an albedo of 0.03+0.02-0.01, which confirms Don Quixote to be the third-largest known NEO. We derive an upper limit on the dust production rate of 1.9 kg s-1 and derive a CO2 gas production rate of (1.1 ± 0.1) × 1026 molecules s-1. Spitzer Infrared Spectrograph spectroscopic observations indicate the presence of fine-grained silicates, perhaps pyroxene rich, on the surface of Don Quixote. Our discovery suggests that CO2 can be present in near-Earth space over a long time. The presence of CO2 might also explain that Don Quixote's cometary nature remained hidden for nearly three decades.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number25
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 20 2014


  • comets: general
  • infrared: planetary systems
  • minor planets, asteroids: individual (3552 Don Quixote)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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