Date of Award

January 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Physics & Astronomy

First Advisor

Henry J Melosh

Committee Member 1

David Minton

Committee Member 2

Marc Caffee

Committee Member 3

Rafael Lang


Sublimation of volatiles is a defining process of comet nuclei, and profoundly affects their dynamics, structure, and appearance. Central to understanding the processes by which comets formed and subsequently evolved is a careful computation of this sublimation pressure as a function of heliocentric distance. Unlike previous efforts, I develop a thermodynamic method to numerically compute the sublimation pressure of any species from limited knowledge of its physical properties. I then describe a novel cometary disruption mechanism in which this sublimation pressure induces differential stresses within the body of the nucleus that exceed its material strength, resulting in structural failure and breakup of the nucleus. I show that this mechanism is consistent with the behavior of Comet ISON (C/2012 S1), and use it to estimate the cohesive strength of ISON’s nucleus, a first for a Long-Period Comet.