In August of 2014, the ESA’s Rosetta mission made history when it rendezvoused with the Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. For the next two years, the probe flew alongside the comet and conducted detailed studies of it. And in November of 2014, Rosetta deployed its Philae probe onto the comet, which was the first time in history that a lander was deployed to the surface of a comet.
During the course of its mission, Rosetta revealed some truly remarkable things about this comet, including data on its composition, its gaseous halo, and how it interacts with solar wind. In addition, the probe also got a good look at the endless stream of dust grains that were poured from the comet’s surface ice as it approached the Sun. From the images Rosetta captured, which the ESA just released, it looked a lot like driving through a snowstorm!
The image below was taken two years ago (on January 21st, 2016), when Rosetta was at a distance of 79 km from the comet. At the time, Rosetta was moving closer following the comet reaching perihelion, which took place during the previous August. When the comet was at perihelion, it was closer to the Sun and at its most active, which necessitated that Rosetta move farther away for its own protection.
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As you can see from the image, the environment around the comet was extremely chaotic, even though it was five months after the comet was at perihelion. The white streaks reveal the dust grains as they flew in front of Rosetta’s camera over the course of a 146 second exposure. For the science team directing Rosetta, flying the spacecraft through these dust storms was like trying to drive a car through a blizzard.
Those who have tried know just how dangerous this can be! On the one hand, visibility is terrible thanks to all the flurries. On the other, the only way to stay oriented is to keep your eyes pealed for any landmarks or signs. And all the while, there is the danger of losing control and colliding with something. In much the same way, passing through the comet’s dust storms was a serious danger to the spacecraft.
In addition to the danger of collisions, flying through these clouds was also hazardous for the spacecraft’s navigation system. Like many robotic spacecraft, Rosetta relies on star trackers to orient itself – where it recognizes patterns in the field of stars to orient itself with respect to the Sun and Earth. When flying closer to the comet, Rosetta’s star trackers would occasionally become confused by dust grains, causing the craft to temporarily enter safe mode.
This occurred on March 28th, 2015 and again on May 30th, 2016, when Rosetta was conducting flybys that brought it to a distance of 14 and 5 km from the comet’s surface, respectively. On both occasions, Rosetta’s navigation system suffered from pointing errors when it began tracking bright dust grains instead of stars. As a result, on these occasions, the mission team lost contact with the probe for 24 hours.
As Patrick Martin, the ESA’s Rosetta mission manager, said during the second event:
“We lost contact with the spacecraft on Saturday evening for nearly 24 hours. Preliminary analysis by our flight dynamics team suggests that the star trackers locked on to a false star – that is, they were confused by comet dust close to the comet, as has been experienced before in the mission.”
Despite posing a danger to Rosetta’s solar arrays and its navigation system, this dust is also of high scientific interest. During the spacecraft’s flybys, three of its instruments studied tens of thousands of grains, analyzing their composition, mass, momentum and velocity, and also creating 3D profiles of their structure. By studying these tiny grains, scientists were also able to learn more about the bulk composition of comets.
Before it reached its grand finale and crashed into the comet’s surface on September 30th, 2016, Rosetta made some unique scientific finds about the comet. These included mapping the comet’s surface features, discerning its overall shape, analyzing the chemical composition of its nucleus and coma, and measuring the ratio of water to heavy water on its surface.
All of these findings helped scientists to learn more about how our Solar System formed and evolved, and shed some light on how water was distributed throughout our Solar System early in its history. For instance, by determining that the ratio of water to heavy water on the comet was much different than that of Earth’s, scientists learned that Earth’s water was not likely to have come from comets like Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
On top of that, the spacecraft took more than a hundred thousand image of the comet with its high-resolution OSIRIS camera (including the ones shown here) and its navigation camera. These images can be perused by going to the ESA’s image browser archive. I’m sure you’ll agree, they are all as beautiful as they are scientifically relevant!
Further Reading: ESA