Rosetta Zooms Toward an Extraordinary Comet

I thought the photos earlier this week were amazing.  This little movie, made of 36 ‘smoothed’ or interpolated images of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, takes it to the next level, showing the comet’s complex shape even more clearly as Rosetta nudges ever closer to its target. Some have likened it to a duck, a boot and even a baby’s foot. The original photos used for the animation were more pixelated, but a technique known as “sub-sampling by interpolation” was used to smooth out the pixels for a more natural look. Be aware that because of processing,  67P C-G appears smoother than it might be. While the surface looks textured, including what appears to be  a small crater atop the duck’s head, we have to be careful at this stage not to over-interpret – some of the details are artifacts. 

Raw pixelated image of the comet (left) and after smoothing. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

No one knows yet how such an unusual shape formed in the first place. Possibly the comet is a ‘contact binary’ made of two separate comets or two parts of  larger, shattered comet that stuck together during a low-velocity collision. This may have happened more 4 billion years ago when the icy building blocks of the planets and comets were numerous and collisions far more frequent than they are today. Contact binaries aren’t uncommon; we see them in asteroids and comets alike.

The Rosetta blog lists other intriguing scenarios:

* The comet may have once been a more spherical object but after many trips around the sun developed an asymmetrical shape from ice vaporization and outgassing.

* A near-catastrophic impact blasted away a huge chunk of comet ice.

* The strong gravitational pull experienced during a close pass of a large planet like Jupiter or Saturn may have pulled it into an irregular shape.

* A large outburst could have weakened a region on the comet’s surface that later crumbled away.


Detailed view of the likely contact binary asteroid 25143 Itokawa visited by the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa in 2005. Credit: JAXA

“We will need to perform detailed analyses and modelling of the shape of the comet to determine how best we can fly around such a uniquely shaped body, taking into account flight control and astrodynamics, the science requirements of the mission, and the landing-related elements like landing site analysis and lander-to-orbiter visibility,” said Rosetta Mission Manager Fred Jansen. ” But with fewer than 10,000 km to go before the August 6th rendezvous, our open questions will soon be answered.”

In the meantime, keep the photos and movies coming. We can’t get enough.

Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

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