Astronomers Think They Know Where Rosetta’s Comet Came From

In the distant past, the orbit of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko extended far beyond Neptune into the refrigerated Kuiper Belt. Interactions with the gravitational giant Jupiter altered the comet’s orbit over time, dragging it into the inner Solar System. Credit: Western University, Canada

Rosetta’s Comet hails from a cold, dark place. Using statistical analysis and scientific computing, astronomers at Western University in Canada have charted a path that most likely pinpoints comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s long-ago home in the far reaches of the Kuiper Belt, a vast region beyond Neptune home to icy asteroids and comets.

According to the new research, Rosetta’s Comet is relative newcomer to the inner parts of our Solar System, having only arrived about 10,000 years ago. Prior to that, it spent the last 4.5 billion years in cold storage in a rough-and-tumble region of the Kuiper Belt called the scattered disk.

The Kuiper Belt was named in honor of Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who postulated a reservoir of icy bodies beyond Neptune. The first Kuiper Belt object was discovered in 1992. We now know of more than a thousand objects there, and it’s estimated it’s home to more than 100,000 asteroids and comets there over 62 miles (100 km) across. Credit: JHUAPL

In the Solar System’s youth, asteroids that strayed too close to Neptune were scattered by the encounter into the wild blue yonder of the disk. Their orbits still bear the scars of those long-ago encounters: they’re often highly-elongated (shaped like a cigar) and tilted willy-nilly from the ecliptic plane up to 40°. Because their orbits can take them hundreds of Earth-Sun distances into the deeps of space, scattered disk objects are among the coldest places in the Solar System with surface temperatures around 50° above absolute zero. Ices that glommed together to form 67P at its birth are little changed today. Primordial stuff.

Watch how Rosetta’s Comet’s orbit has evolved since the comet’s formation

There are two basic comet groups. Most comets reside in the cavernous Oort Cloud, a roughly spherical-shaped region of space between 10,000 and 100,000 AU (astronomical unit = one Earth-Sun distance) from the Sun. The other major group, the Jupiter-family comets, owes its allegiance to the powerful gravity of the giant planet Jupiter. These comets race around the Sun with periods of less than 20 years. It’s thought they originate from collisions betwixt rocky-icy asteroids in the Kuiper Belt.

Fragments flung from the collisions are perturbed by Neptune into long, cigar-shaped orbits that bring them near Jupiter, which ropes them like calves with its insatiable gravity and re-settles them into short-period orbits.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a Jupiter-family comet. Its 6.5 year journey around the Sun takes it from just beyond the orbit of Jupiter at its most distant to between the orbits of Earth and Mars at its closest. Credit: ESA with labels by the author

Mattia Galiazzo and solar system expert Paul Wiegert, both at Western University, showed that in transit, Rosetta’s Comet likely spent millions of years in the scattered disk at about twice the distance of Neptune. The fact that it’s now a Jupiter family comet hints of a possible long-ago collision followed by gravitational interactions with Neptune and Jupiter before finally becoming an inner Solar System homebody going around the Sun every 6.45 years.

By such long paths do we arrive at our present circumstances.

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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