Do we observe different events or activities on main-belt comets, or do they behave exactly the same as regular comets?
(Apart from the obvious difference in orbit size/shape.)

The Wikipedia article for main-belt comets currently states the following:

  • "The Jet Propulsion Laboratory defines a main-belt asteroid as an asteroid with a semi-major axis (average distance from the Sun) of more than 2 AU but less than 3.2 AU, and a perihelion (closest approach distance to the Sun) of no less than 1.6 AU."
    (So this appears to denote the main asteroid belt, not the Kuiper belt or the Oort cloud.)

  • "David Jewitt from UCLA points out that [main-belt comets] are most likely not comets with sublimating ice, but asteroids that exhibit dust activity, and hence he and others started calling these class of objects active asteroids."
    (The article cites this video, from the official HST channel, as the source for this quote.)

If "active asteroids" behave exactly like comets, with no measurable difference in observation, how can he claim the two types of objects are likely composed of different materials, and operate with different mechanics?
What is the scientific basis for this differentiation?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Is it specified what is meant by "main-belt"? Is it the asteroid belt or the Kuiper belt? $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2016 at 18:41

3 Answers 3


The key is that asteroids (including "main-belt comets") have very different orbits from true comets, and this says a lot about their history.

Comets are located in the outer solar system. While they can occasionally be perturbed onto an orbit that takes them close to the Sun, these orbits are necessarily highly eccentric. That is, if you find yourself very far from the Sun, even though you may be on a course for the inner solar system you must return to where you are presently unless some further interaction occurs. The only way for something that started out far away to end up on a roughly circular asteroid-like orbit is to be perturbed inward and then somehow be perturbed again in the inner solar system in just the right way.

Thus most asteroids have been in that $2\mathrm{-}3\ \mathrm{AU}$ region for the entire history of the solar system. Conversely, an object that started out as an asteroid would have a very hard time ending up in a comet-like orbit, so comets must have formed far away.

Now consider the concept of the ice line. In the early solar system, when there was still a disk of gas a dust swirling around the Sun, somewhere around the present-day asteroid belt was the boundary between where volatiles like water and ammonia could freeze out. Beyond this line, you can get bodies consisting of mostly ice (unless they get too big and start collecting hydrogen and helium via gravity, in which case we call them the outer planets). But just as Earth is more rock and metal than ice, so too are many asteroids.

Moreover, the present-day ice line is at about $5\ \mathrm{AU}$. Inside this radius, exposed water will not last long (compared to the age of the solar system). If an asteroid were made of pure ice (like a comet), it would have sublimated billions of years ago.

The thinking is that when we see volatile outgassing from an asteroid, it must be a mixed ice-rock body that recently underwent a collision that exposed a new layer of ice. Now the exposed regions can outgas like a comet, but only for a relatively brief time.

  • $\begingroup$ I've been thinking about this for a few hours, and I can't seem to think of a way around this. In the quote, David Jewitt "points out that [main-belt comets] are most likely not comets with sublimating ice, but asteroids that exhibit dust activity, and hence he and others started calling these class of objects active asteroids." So why would the impact + exposed ices theory apply here? He's saying they're made of different material, not ice, and I'm asking what the scientific basis is. $\endgroup$
    – Giffyguy
    Aug 4, 2016 at 1:42

I watched the video in your post, or a similiar one, on the BBC and from what I remember Jewitt was making a distinction between comets, asteroids and asteroids with "jets" of outgoing matter.

I am pretty sure main belt refers to the asteroid belt.

enter image description here

Just to clarify the location(s), Jewitt states:

The significance of the activity is that at least some appear to be a distinct, third comet reservoir in the Solar system (after the Oort cloud and the Kuiper belt). There is no established dynamical pathway between these other reservoirs and the main-belt in the modern solar system, so any ice probably has led a different history from ice in the other comets. Comparing objects from the three reservoirs allows us to sample the protoplanetary disk of the Sun at three locations (the asteroid belt - near 3 AU and formation temperature near 150 K, Oort Cloud comets - 5 to 30 AU formation temperatures 100 to about 50 K; Kuiper belt - beyond 30 AU, 50 K and colder).

From his website:

Active Asteroids are a newly recognized class of body in the solar system. They are remarkable for having both the orbital characteristics of asteroids and the physical characteristics of comets. What this means is that they look like comets because they show comae and tails but they have orbits interior to Jupiter's (a < a_J) and Tisserand parameters substantially larger than 3, like asteroids.

[Note: the definition is an empirical one, based on simple measurable quantities, and does not presume an origin for the comet-like activity by the sublimation of ice. In fact, as described here, there are many possible causes for mass loss from asteroids in addition to sublimation. For this reason, the preferred term for these bodies is "Active Asteroids". Formerly, we called them "Main Belt Comets" but this was misinterpreted by many people to mean that the active objects are necessarily icy. In most cases, we don't know if they are icy. In some cases we know that they are not.]

He states that some active asteroids are created by impacts, rotational bursting and other less likely effects such as thermal heating.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the info. So it sounds like observed behavior is the same, between traditional comets and active asteroids? So my question is, how can he theorize that they are made of different materials, if the observations are the same? What's the scientific basis for this stipulation? $\endgroup$
    – Giffyguy
    Aug 3, 2016 at 18:56
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ From what I remember of the video, since his website is not clear on this, he has traditional comets (water ice based and loosely held together), traditional stony and rock asteroids which don't outgas at all, and his active asteroids, which contain volitiles, released when an impact occurs. His website covers the possible mechanisms, but he needs more data, as he still has a small sample, to produce definitive answers and his article reflects this. $\endgroup$
    – user108787
    Aug 3, 2016 at 19:08
  • $\begingroup$ The quote about "most likely not comets with sublimating ice, but asteroids that exhibit dust activity" seems to indicate that volitiles (e.g. ices) are not present. Furthermore, in one of the quotes you posted from his website, he said "In most cases, we don't know if they are icy. In some cases we know that they are not." The collision + exposed ices theory seems to be a deflection from the main question, which is, how can we explain identical cometary behavior from clearly non-icy bodies, with no volitiles? (Comet 67P is a good example.) How do we account for different material composure? $\endgroup$
    – Giffyguy
    Aug 4, 2016 at 16:39
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Giffyguy Chris White above is far more knowledgeable about this than I, as you can see from the points. I apologise for this, but would you mind asking Chris? $\endgroup$
    – user108787
    Aug 4, 2016 at 16:47
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Giffyguy I thought the BBC program was fascinating, both the content and the images. Jewitt came across as a man who would not give up easily, but he really has his work cut out getting more data. I think it's a long term project. $\endgroup$
    – user108787
    Aug 4, 2016 at 17:31

I believe it is safe to say the following:

  1. If we observe two objects exhibiting identical behavior/measurements/observations, the only reasonable scientific deduction is that the objects are most likely composed of the same materials and operate with the same mechanics - at the very least until future observations can confirm/deny. This appears to be indisputable logic, and the physics community at StackExchange has collectively been unable to demonstrate otherwise as of yet, thereby indirectly validating the integrity of this logic.
  2. Regarding the observational data, David Jewitt of UCLA stated, "In most cases, we don't know if they are icy. In some cases we know that they are not." Therefore, because we have confirmed through observation that objects exhibiting cometary behavior are not icy, but rather rocky, with no direct observations of ice (yet); using the deduction explained in #1 above, we can infer that most/all comets are probably not icy, and that most/all comets probably operate with mechanics that do not require ice (i.e. not sublimation).
  3. If the current standard model of the solar system cannot support this scenario, but we cannot modify or discount the logic explained in #1 above, then the standard model must be altered to conform with this interpretation until future observations can confirm/deny relevant predictions. I will not explain details of what changes would need to be made (unless requested), but generally speaking it would require a fairly comprehensive upheaval of the majority of standard model predictions and mechanics relating to the operation and formation of our solar system.
  4. This is no different from the way the standard model was modified to conform with predictions in the early 1900's, such as the original prediction that comets are composed of sublimating ices, before we had sufficient technology to observe cometary objects being composed of rocky substances instead. As our observations become more accurate with newer technology, our scientific predictions change, and the standard model is expected to reshape in order to match more recent predictions, observations, and interpretations.
  5. If the scientific and academic communities fail to allow the standard model to adjust to accommodate modern observations and the indisputable logic of #1 above, then they are failing to uphold the definition of the scientific method, and by doing so are stunting the progress of science and greater knowledge for humanity.

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