Wow! This image shows the target comet for the Rosetta mission starting to develop a tail. This bodes well for the European Space Agency spacecraft, which is on its way to study Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko later this year to learn more about the origins of the solar system.
“It’s beginning to look like a real comet,” stated Holger Sierks, principal investigator for OSIRIS (Optical, Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging System.)
“It’s hard to believe that only a few months from now, Rosetta will be deep inside this cloud of dust and en route to the origin of the comet’s activity,” added Sierks, who is with the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany.
The picture was one of a series taken over six weeks, between March 27 and May 4, as the spacecraft zoomed to within 1.24 million miles (two million kilometers) of the target. You can see the full animation by clicking on the image below.
The comet is now about four times as far from the Sun as the Earth is. Even from afar, the Sun’s heat is warming the comet’s ice, causing dust and vapor to carry out into space — forming the coma. The coma will develop into a long tail when the comet gets even closer to the sun.
Rosetta will be the comet’s companion as it draws closer to the sun; its closest approach will be in August 2015, when it is between the orbits of Earth and Mars. So far, the spacecraft’s 11 instruments appear to be in excellent health, ESA stated, although the agency is remaining cautious as the rendezvous date approaches. The spacecraft will begin orbital insertion activities later this month, and send out its Philae lander in November.
“We have a challenging three months ahead of us as we navigate closer to the comet, but after a 10-year journey it’s great to be able to say that our spacecraft is ready to conduct unique science at comet 67P/C-G,” stated Fred Jansen, ESA’s Rosetta mission manager.
Source: European Space Agency