Because of Comet Kohoutek's anticipated large gas production, which seemed to offer a unique chance to reveal parent molecules, two Fabry-Perot Tilting Filter Photometers were designed with the purpose to detect and study the behaviour of CH4 and its photolysis product H2 The importance of these two molecules is well known and their detection would have given valuable indications about the structure of the nucleus, its thermal history and conditions of formation.
Similar to CH4, H2 has no dipole moment and cannot be detected by radioastronomy. The most obvious way for measuring H2 in extended cometary comae is certainly on the basis of fluorescence from the Lyman bands around 1000Å, there are, however, vibrational quadrupole transitions within the overtone bands of the ground electronic state which give rise to emissions in the near infrared, accessible by means of ground based telescopes. Three of the stronger lines are: λ = 0.8748 μ; 0.8560 μ and 0.8497 μ. Methane is more readily detectable in the infrared, since it has strong fundamental (1-0) infrared vibration rotation bands at 3.3 μ (ν
3).In order to measure both the CH4 concentration and its rotational temperature, a. very high resolution (~3.7A) high throughput instrument was designed which could isolate several individual vibration-rotation lines in the v3 band, namely the P2, P3 and P9 lines. The instrument consisting of a Fabry-Periot Tilting Filter Photometer with InSb detector interfaced with the 30 cm f/30 Dahl-Kirkham Telescope is described in detail elsewhere.( l). The observations were made in January from the NASA Convair 990 (Galileo II) at an altitude of 13 km, where atmospheric methane absorption can be minimized but not avoided. Doppler shift of cometary and atmospheric lines with respect to one another by at least a few A caused by the orbiting velocity of the comet would be sufficient to allow for high transmission measurements. Though long integration time measurements with Lock-In- Amplifier technique have been carried out, no signals from the CH4-rotational lines of the comet coma could be detected. Using the planet Venus as a calibration source for the photon flux and as a result of delicate laboratory measnrements an upper limit of
could be derived. This value is several orders of magnitude less than the original predictions for Kohoutek during close approach. Therefore, one could conclude that volatile components like CH4 boiled off the comet well before perihelion, at large (~4 AU) distances from the sun and were responsible for the high brightness of the comet at that time. Such a fractionation is only possible if the nucleus was composed of relatively loose, porous ice, rather than compact ice. This hypothesis was strongly supported by the second experiment for search of H2 in the near infrared at the 182 cm telescope of Asiago. Also in this case a Fabry-Perot tilting filter photometer was designed to match with the f/9 optics of the telescope. The instrument (2) consists in a high resolution (~0.7A) tilting filter system with photon counting technique which allows phase-sensitive background subtraction. On the basis of the best data achieved between January 10 and 15 the occurrence of H2-lines with an intensity larger than 2% of the continuum could be excluded, viz. the flux averaged over the field of view was less than 4.105 photons/cm2 sec sr A. Since the pre- and post-perihelion measurements were not affected by molecular fluorescence, they represent only the light scattering flux from dust particles. The data display that the comet's dust coma was definitely brighter during approach than during recession from the sun. However, the quantity of more fundamental interest is the difference in dust production rates, and a derivation of the mass-production rate of dust could be derived. The study shows that both the dust and gas production rate differ greatly in the pre-perihelion period as compared to the post-perihelion period, as conjectured previously for "virgin" comets. (Dust production rate/gas production rate: pre-perihelion 0.1, post-perihelion 1). The pronounced asymmetry in the production rates strongly suggests that fractionation and dust entrainment effects have to be considered in brightness predictions of young comets, the nucleus of which will generally consist of a multi-component mixture of parent molecules.