Modelling the Neutral Sodium Tails of Comets

Friday, 19 December 2014
Kimberley S Birkett1,2, Geraint H Jones1,2 and Andrew J Coates1,2, (1)University College London, Mullard Space Science Laboratory, London, United Kingdom, (2)University College London, Centre for Planetary Sciences (at UCL/Birkbeck), London, United Kingdom
Neutral sodium is typically easy to detect in active comets around perihelion, due to the very high efficiency of the sodium D transition, and at some comets a distinct neutral sodium tail is observed. The first distinct neutral sodium tail images were apparent in comet Hale-Bopp (C/1995 O1) data taken using CoCam [Cremonese et al, 1997], but since this initial detection similar features have been observed at a number of near-Sun comets using the SOHO/LASCO coronagraph. An understanding of the distribution and evolution of neutral cometary sodium may best be developed using a combination of spectra and images in different filters at multiple times throughout a comet’s orbit.

At present the source of neutral sodium in comets is unknown, primarily because the evolution of neutral cometary sodium is difficult to intuitively predict due to the Swings and Greenstein effects. Several authors [review presented in Cremonese et al, 1999] have suggested various combinations of sources of neutral sodium in the nuclear region, near-nuclear region, dust tail and ion tail.

In order to understand the wide variety of cometary observations of neutral sodium available we have developed the first fully three dimensional, heliocentric distance dependent, versatile Monte Carlo neutral sodium tail model (initially based on a model developed by [Brown et al, 1998]). Our model is known as COMPASS (Cometary Orbital Motion at Perihelion: an Adaptable Sodium Simulation), and incorporates the unintuitive variation in radiation pressure influences on sodium atoms with different heliocentric velocities.

We present the initial results of a comparison between COMPASS and observational data. We have found good agreement between the overall morphology of the neutral sodium tail imaged at comet Hale-Bopp and COMPASS, and have begun to extend the study to other comets of interest. We also present a comparison between simulated COMPASS spectra and observations. The versatility of COMPASS allows it to be easily adapted to any other neutral cometary sodium tail observations available.