Rosetta Tunes in Tempel 1

Rosetta’s photograph of Comet Tempel 1, it’s down on the lower left. Image credit: ESA. Click to enlarge.
ESA?s Rosetta comet-chaser spacecraft has acquired its first view of the Deep Impact target, Comet 9P/Tempel 1.

This first Rosetta image of the Deep Impact campaign was taken by its Navigation Camera (NAVCAM) between 08:45 and 09:15 CEST on 28 June 2005.

The image shows that the spacecraft now points towards Comet 9P/Tempel 1 in the correct orientation. The NAVCAM is pointing purposely slightly off-target to give the best view to the science instrumentation.

The NAVCAM system on board Rosetta was activated for the first time on 25 July 2004. This system, comprising two separate independent camera units (for back-up), will help to navigate the spacecraft near the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in ten years time.

In the meantime though, the cameras can also be used to track other objects, such as Comet Tempel 1, and the two asteroids that Rosetta will be visiting during its long cruise, Steins and Lutetia.

The cameras perform both as star sensors and imaging cameras (but not with the same high resolution as some of its other instruments), and switch functions by means of a refocusing system in front of the first lens.

The magnitude of Comet Tempel 1 is at the detection limit of the camera: it is not as easily visible in the raw image and the image here is a composite of 20 exposures of 30 seconds each.

The comet is the fuzzy object with the tail in the lower left of the image. The faintest stars visible in this image are about 13th magnitude, the bright star in the upper left is about 8th magnitude. The image covers about 0.5 degrees square, and celestial north is to the right.

Original Source: ESA News Release

Deep Impact Sees a Burst from Tempel 1

Artist illustration of Deep Impact with Comet Tempel 1. Image credit: NASA/JPL. Click to enlarge.
NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft observed a massive, short-lived outburst of ice or other particles from comet Tempel 1 that temporarily expanded the size and reflectivity of the cloud of dust and gas (coma) that surrounds the comet nucleus.

The outburst was detected as a dramatic brightening of the comet on June 22. It is the second of two such events observed in the past two weeks. A smaller outburst also was seen on June 14 by Deep Impact, the Hubble Space Telescope and by ground based observers.

“This most recent outburst was six times larger than the one observed on June 14, but the ejected material dissipated almost entirely within about a half day,” said University of Maryland College Park astronomer Michael A’Hearn, principal investigator for the Deep Impact mission. A’Hearn noted that data from the spectrometer aboard the spacecraft showed that during the June 22 outburst the amount of water vapor in the coma doubled, while the amount of other gases, including carbon dioxide, increased even more.

A movie of the cometary outburst is available on the Internet at .

“Outbursts such as this may be a very common phenomenon on many comets, but they are rarely observed in sufficient detail to understand them because it is normally so difficult to obtain enough time on telescopes to discover such phenomena,” A’Hearn said. “We likely would have missed this exciting event, except that we are now getting almost continuous coverage of the comet with the spacecraft’s imaging and spectroscopy instruments.”

Deep Impact co-investigator Jessica Sunshine, with Science Applications International Corporation, Chantilly, Va., agreed that observing such activity twice in two weeks suggests outbursts are fairly common. “We must now consider them as a significant part of the processing that occur on comets as they heat up when approaching the sun,” she said.

Comet Tempel 1 is near perihelion, or the point in its orbit at which it is closest to the Sun.

“This adds to the level of excitement as we come down to the final days before encounter,” said Rick Grammier, Deep Impact project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “But this comet outburst will require no modification to mission plan and in no way affects spacecraft safety.”

Deep Impact consists of a sub-compact-car-sized flyby spacecraft and an impactor spacecraft about the size of a washing machine. The dual spacecraft carries three imaging instruments, two on the flyby spacecraft and one on the impactor. A spectrometer on the flyby spacecraft uses the same telescope as the flyby’s high- resolution imager.

The final prelude to impact will begin early on July 3, 24 hours before the 1:52 a.m. EDT July 4th impact, when the flyby spacecraft releases the impactor into the path of the comet. Like a copper penny pitched up into the air just in front of a speeding tractor-trailer truck, the 820-pound impactor will be run down by the comet, colliding with the nucleus at a closing speed of 23,000 miles per hour. Scientists expect the impact to create a crater several hundred feet in size; ejecting ice, dust and gas from the crater and revealing pristine material beneath. The impact will have no significant affect on the orbit of Tempel 1, which poses no threat to Earth.

Nearby, Deep Impact’s “flyby” spacecraft will use its medium and high resolution imagers and infrared spectrometer to collect and send to Earth pictures and spectra of the event. The Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and large and small telescopes on Earth also will observe the impact and its aftermath.

The University of Maryland, College Park, conducts overall mission science for Deep Impact that is a Discovery class NASA program. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory handles project management and mission operations. The spacecraft was built for NASA by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corporation, Boulder, Colo.

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

Spacecraft Wakes Up for Comet Collision

Artist illustration of SWAS. Image credit: CfA. Click to enlarge.
The Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite (SWAS) has been asleep on orbit for the past 11 months. SWAS operators placed it into hibernation after a highly successful 5.5-year mission highlighted by the discovery of a swarm of comets evaporating around an aging red giant star. Now, they have awakened SWAS again for the first-ever opportunity to study a comet on a collision course with a U.S. space probe.

“We knew there was life left in SWAS,” said SWAS Principal Investigator Gary Melnick (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics). “SWAS’s ability to detect emission from water convinced us that we could contribute to the broader understanding of comets generated by this event. This once-in-a-lifetime event was just too tempting to pass up.”

NASA’s Deep Impact mission will rendezvous with Comet Tempel 1 at the end of June. Twenty-four hours before collision, on July 3rd, the flyby spacecraft will deploy a 39-inch long by 39-inch wide, 802-pound copper-reinforced impactor to strike the comet’s nucleus. As the main Deep Impact spacecraft watches from a safe distance, the impactor will blast material out of the comet, excavating a football stadium-sized crater of pristine ice from the interior. SWAS will measure the abundance of water molecules as the icy comet debris vaporizes.

“Because a comet is composed mostly of ice and rock, water is the most abundant molecule released by a comet. Everything else vaporizing from the comet is measured relative to the amount of water,” said Melnick. “Water is the gold standard for comets, so knowing how much water is being released per second is a very useful piece of information.”

Current SWAS measurements indicate that Comet Tempel 1 is ejecting about 730 pounds of water per second, which is modest by cometary standards. Deep Impact mission designers specifically selected the target for this reason because the probe’s mothership will have a better chance of surviving the flyby. SWAS will watch closely for any changes to the water production rate during and after the impact. Its measurements will help constrain the nature of the comet’s nucleus, including its chemical makeup.

NASA and the SWAS team decided to reawaken the satellite because it offers several unique advantages for observing the impactor-comet collision. SWAS can determine the water production rate directly. It has a large field of view that encompasses both the comet nucleus and the surrounding envelope of vaporized gases known as the coma. And, it is above the atmosphere and unaffected by weather, allowing SWAS to monitor the comet almost continuously.

In early June, the satellite was powered up and its components successfully tested. SWAS will remain active through the end of August, watching Comet Tempel 1 for any long-term changes.

“It’s gratifying that a satellite that has contributed so much during its lifetime has been given one more opportunity,” said Melnick. “Helping to decipher the composition of material thought to be unchanged since the birth of our solar system seems like a great last act.”

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

Original Source: CfA News Release

Hubble Sees a Jet on Comet Tempel 1

Hubble view of a jet on Comet Tempel 1. Image credit: Hubble. Click to enlarge.
In a dress rehearsal for the rendezvous between NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft and comet 9P/Tempel 1, the Hubble Space Telescope captured dramatic images of a new jet of dust streaming from the icy comet.

The images are a reminder that Tempel 1’s icy nucleus, roughly half the size of Manhattan, is dynamic and volatile. Astronomers hope the eruption of dust seen in these observations is a preview of the fireworks that may come July 4, when a probe from the Deep Impact spacecraft will slam into the comet, possibly blasting off material and giving rise to a similar dust plume.

These observations demonstrate that Hubble’s sharp “eye” can see exquisite details of the comet’s temperamental activities. The Earth-orbiting observatory was 75 million miles away from the comet when these images were taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys’ High Resolution Camera. The telescope’s views complement close-up images being taken by cameras aboard Deep Impact, which is speeding toward the comet.

The two images, taken seven hours apart on June 14, show Tempel 1 and its new jet. The image at left, taken at 2:17 a.m. (EDT), is a view of the comet before the outburst. The bright dot is light reflecting from the comet’s nucleus, which appears star-like in these images because it is too small even for Hubble to resolve. The nucleus, a potato-shaped object, is 8.7 miles (14 kilometers) wide and 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) long. Hubble’s viewing the nucleus is as difficult as someone trying to spot a potato in Salt Lake City from New York City.

The photo at right, snapped at 9:15 a.m. (EDT), reveals the jet [the bright fan-shaped area]. The jet extends about 1,400 miles (2,200 kilometers), which is roughly half the distance across the U.S. It is pointing in the direction of the Sun. Comets frequently show outbursts in activity, but astronomers still don’t know exactly why they occur. Tempel 1 has been moving closer to the Sun, and perhaps the increasing heat opened up a crack in the comet’s dark, crusty surface. Dust and gas trapped beneath the surface could then spew out of the crack, forming a jet. Or, perhaps a portion of the crust itself was lifted off the nucleus by the pressure of heated gases beneath the surface. This porous crust might then crumble into small dust particles shortly after leaving the nucleus, producing a fan-shaped coma on the sunward side. Whatever the cause, the new feature may not last for long.

Astronomers hope that the July 4 collision will unleash more primordial material trapped inside the comet, which formed billions of years ago. Comets are thought to be “dirty snowballs,” porous agglomerates of ice and rock that dwell in the frigid outer boundaries of our solar system. Periodically, they make their journey into the inner solar system as they loop around the Sun.

The contrast in these images has been enhanced to highlight the brightness of the new jet.

Original Source: Hubble News Release

Deep Impact Has Its Target in View

Deep Impact’s first view of Comet Temple 1 from a distance of 64 million kilometers (39.7 million miles). Image credit: NASA/JPL. Click to enlarge.
Sixty-nine days before it gets up-close-and-personal with a comet, NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft successfully photographed its quarry, comet Tempel 1, from a distance of 64 million kilometers (39.7 million miles).

The image, the first of many comet portraits it will take over the next 10 weeks, will aid Deep Impact’s navigators, engineers and scientists as they plot their final trajectory toward an Independence Day encounter. “It is great to get a first glimpse at the comet from our spacecraft,” said Deep Impact Principal Investigator Dr. Michael A’Hearn of the University of Maryland, College Park, Md. “With daily observations beginning in May, Tempel 1 will become noticeably more impressive as we continue to close the gap between spacecraft and comet. What is now little more than a few pixels across will evolve by July 4 into the best, most detailed images of a comet ever taken.”

The ball of dirty ice and rock was detected on April 25 by Deep Impact’s medium resolution instrument on the very first attempt. While making the detection, the spacecraft’s camera saw stars as dim as 11th visual magnitude, more than 100 times dimmer than a human can see on a clear night.

“This is the first of literally thousands of images we will take of Tempel 1 for both science and navigational purposes,” said Deputy Program Manager Keyur Patel at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Our goal is to impact a one-meter long (39-inch) spacecraft into about a 6.5-kilometer wide (4-mile) comet that is bearing down on it at 10.2 kilometers per second (6.3 miles per second), while both are 133.6 million kilometers (83 million miles) away from Earth. By finding the comet as early and as far away as we did is a definite aid to our navigation.”

To view the comet image on the Internet, visit or

Deep Impact is comprised of two parts, a “flyby” spacecraft and a smaller “impactor.” The impactor will be released into the comet’s path for a planned high-speed collision on July 4. The crater produced by the impact could range in size from the width of a large house up to the size of a football stadium and from 2 to 14 stories deep. Ice and dust debris will be ejected from the crater, revealing the material beneath.

The Deep Impact spacecraft has four data collectors to observe the effects of the collision – a camera and infrared spectrometer comprise the high resolution instrument, a medium resolution instrument, and a duplicate of that camera on the impactor (called the impactor targeting sensor) that will record the vehicle’s final moments before it is run over by comet Tempel 1 at a speed of about 37,000 kilometers per hour (23,000 miles per hour).

The overall Deep Impact mission management for this Discovery class program is conducted by the University of Maryland. Deep Impact project management is handled by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The spacecraft was built for NASA by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation, Boulder, Colo.

For more information about Deep Impact on the Internet, visit NASA Deep Impact.

Original Source: NASA/JPL News Release

Rosetta Can “Smell” a Comet

Image credit: ESA
One of the ingenious instruments on board Rosetta is designed to ?smell? the comet for different substances, analysing samples that have been ?cooked? in a set of miniature ovens.

ESA?s Rosetta will be the first space mission ever to land on a comet. After its lander reaches Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the main spacecraft will follow the comet for many months as it heads towards the Sun.

Rosetta’s task is to study comets, which are considered the primitive building blocks of the Solar System. This will help us to understand if life on Earth began with the help of ‘comet seeding’.

The Ptolemy instrument is an ?Evolved Gas Analyser?, the first example of a new concept in space instruments, devised to tackle the challenge of analysing substances ?on location? on bodies in our Solar System.

Weighing just 4.5 kilograms and about the size of a shoe box, it was produced by a collaboration of the UK?s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Open University.

The analysis of these samples from the surface of the comet will establish what the cometary nucleus is made from, providing valuable information about these most primitive objects.

After the lander touches down on the comet, the Ptolemy instrument will collect comet nucleus material, believed to be a frozen mixture of ices, dust and tar, using the Sampling, Drilling and Distribution system (SD2) supplied by Tecnospazio Milano of Italy. SD2 will drill for small cores of ice and dust from depths of down to 250 millimetres.

Samples collected in this way will be delivered to one of four tiny ?ovens? dedicated to Ptolemy, which are mounted on a circular, rotatable carousel. The German-supplied carousel has 32 of these ovens, with the remainder being used by other Rosetta instruments.

Of the four Ptolemy ovens, three are for solid samples collected and delivered by SD2 while the fourth will be used to collect volatile materials from the near-surface cometary atmosphere.

By heating the solid samples to 800 ?C, the oven converts them into gases which then pass along a pipe into Ptolemy. The gas will then be separated into its constituent chemical species using a gas chromatograph.

Ptolemy can then determine which chemicals are present in the comet sample, and hence help to build up a detailed picture of what the comet is made from.

It does this using the world?s smallest ?ion-trap mass spectrometer?, a small, low-power device built with the latest miniature technology. This device will find out what gases are present in any particular sample and measure stable isotope ratios.

Original Source: ESA News Release

Did Comets Create the Earth’s Oceans?

Did the Earth form with water locked into its rocks, which then gradually leaked out over millions of years? Or did the occasional impacting comet provide the Earth?s oceans? The Ptolemy experiment on Rosetta may just find out?

The Earth needed a supply of water for its oceans, and the comets are large celestial icebergs – frozen reservoirs of water orbiting the Sun.

Did the impact of a number of comets, thousands of millions of years ago, provide the Earth with its supply of water? Finding hard scientific evidence is surprisingly difficult.

Ptolemy may just provide the information to understand the source of water on Earth. It is a miniature laboratory designed to analyse the precise types of atoms that make up familiar molecules like water.

Atoms can come in slightly different types, known as isotopes. Each isotope behaves almost identically in a chemical sense but has a slightly different weight because of extra neutrons in its nucleii.

Ian Wright is the principal investigator for Ptolemy, an instrument on Rosetta?s Philae lander. By analysing with Ptolemy the mix of isotopes found in Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, he hopes to say whether comet water is similar to that found in Earth?s oceans. Recent results from the ground-based observation of another comet, called LINEAR, suggested that they probably are the same.

If this is true, then scientists have solved another puzzle. However, if the comets are not responsible for Earth?s oceans, then planetary scientists and geophysicists will have to look elsewhere.

For example, the answer could be closer to home, through processes related to vulcanism. Also, meteorites (chunks of asteroids or comets that fall to Earth) have been found to contain water but it is bound to the minerals and in nothing like the quantity found in comets.

However, since the Earth formed from rocks similar to the asteroids, it is feasible that enough water could have been supplied that way.

If comets did not supply Earth?s oceans then it implies something amazing about the comets themselves. If Ptolemy finds that they are made of extremely different isotopes, it means that they may not have formed in our Solar System at all. Instead, they could be interstellar rovers captured by the Sun?s gravity.

Rosetta, Philae and Ptolemy will either solve one scientific mystery, or open another whole set of new ones.

Original Source: ESA News Release

Rosetta Focuses on LINEAR

Image credit: ESA
ESA’s comet-chaser Rosetta, whose 10-year journey to its final target Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko started on 2 March, is well on its way. The first phase of commissioning is close to completion and Rosetta has successfully performed its first scientific activity – observation of Comet Linear.

The commissioning activities, which started a couple of days after launch, included the individual activation of all instruments on board the Rosetta orbiter and the Philae lander. This first check-out worked flawlessly and showed that the spacecraft and all instruments are functioning well and in excellent shape.

The commissioning tests also paved the way for Rosetta’s first scientific activity: observation of Comet C/2002 T7 (LINEAR), which is currently travelling for the first and only time through the inner Solar System and offered Rosetta an excellent opportunity to make its first scientific observation.

On 30 April, the OSIRIS camera system, which was scheduled for commissioning on that date, took images of this unique cometary visitor. Later that day, three more instruments on board Rosetta (ALICE, MIRO and VIRTIS) were activated in parallel to take measurements of the comet. Although the parallel activation of the instruments was not planned until later in the year, the Rosetta team felt confident that this could be done without any risk because of the satisfactory progress of the overall testing.

The first data from the remote-sensing observations confirm the excellent performance of the instruments. The four instruments took images and spectra of Comet C/2002 T7 (LINEAR) to study its coma and tail in different wavelengths, from ultraviolet to microwave. Rosetta successfully measured the presence of water molecules in the tenuous atmosphere around the comet. Detailed analysis of the data will require the complete calibration of the instruments, which will take place in the coming months. The OSIRIS camera produced high-resolution images of Comet C/2002 T7 (LINEAR) from a distance of about 95 million kilometres. The image (above) showing a pronounced nucleus and a section of the tenuous tail extending over about 2 million kilometres was obtained by OSIRIS in blue light.

The successful observation of Comet Linear was a first positive test for Rosetta’s ultimate goal, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which will be reached in 2014. Rosetta will be the first mission to undertake a long-term exploration of a comet at close quarters whilst accompanying it on its way towards the Sun.

The unprecedented in-depth study conducted by the Rosetta orbiter and its Philae lander will help scientists decipher the formation of our Solar System around 4600 million years ago and provide them with clues of how comets may have contributed to the beginning of life on Earth. In particular, the Philae lander, developed by a European consortium under the leadership of the German Aerospace Research Institute (DLR), will analyse the composition and structure of the comet’s surface.

After Rosetta’s first deep-space manoeuvres were carried out on 10 and 15 May with the highest accuracy, the first phase of commissioning is set to be completed in the first week of June. Rosetta will then go into a quiet ?cruise mode? until September, when the second phase of commissioning is scheduled to start. These activities, including the interference and pointing campaign, will last until December.

So the Rosetta spacecraft is well under way on its epic 10-year voyage, to do what has never before been attempted ? orbiting and landing on a comet.

Original Source: ESA News Release

SOHO Has Seen 750 Comets

Image credit: ESA
On 22 March 2004, the ESA/NASA SOHO solar observatory spacecraft discovered its 750th comet since its launch in December 1995.

SOHO comet 750 was discovered by the German amateur astronomer Sebastian H?nig, one of the most successful SOHO comet-hunters. It was a part of the Kreutz family of ‘sungrazing’ comets, which usually evaporate in the hot solar atmosphere.

The LASCO coronagraph on SOHO, designed for seeing outbursts from the Sun, uses a mask to block the bright rays from the visible surface. It monitors a large volume of surrounding space and, as a result, has become the most prolific ‘discoverer’ of comets in the history of astronomy. Its images are displayed on the internet.

More than 75% of the discoveries have come from amateur comet hunters around the world, watching these freely available SOHO images on the internet. So, anyone with internet access can take part in the hunt for new comets and be a ‘comet discoverer’! Click here for information about how to search for your own comet.

SOHO is a mission of international co-operation between ESA and NASA, launched in December 1995. Every day SOHO sends thrilling images from which research scientists learn about the Sun’s nature and behaviour. Experts around the world use SOHO images and data to help them predict ‘space weather’ events affecting our planet.

Original Source: ESA News Release

Landing on a Comet

Image credit: ESA
Rosetta?s lander Philae will do something never before attempted: land on a comet. But how will it do this, when the kind of surface it will land on is unknown?

With the surface composition and condition largely a mystery, engineers found themselves with an extraordinary challenge; they had to design something that would land equally well on either solid ice or powder snow, or any state in between.

In the tiny gravitational field of a comet, landing on hard icy surface might cause Philae to bounce off again. Alternatively, hitting a soft snowy one could result in it sinking. To cope with either possibility, Philae will touch as softly as possible. In fact, engineers have likened it more to docking in space.

Landing on a comet is nothing like landing on a large planet, you do not have to fight against the pull of the planet?s gravity, and there is no atmosphere.

The final touching velocity will be about one metre per second. That is near a walking pace. However, as anyone who has walked into a wall by mistake will tell you, it is still fast enough to do some damage. So, two other strategies have been implemented.

Firstly, to guard against bouncing off, Philae will fire harpoons upon contact to secure itself to the comet.

Secondly, to prevent Philae from disappearing into a snowy surface, the landing gear is equipped with large pads to spread its weight across a broad area ? which is how snowshoes work on Earth, allowing us to walk on powdery falls of snow.

When necessity forced Rosetta?s target comet to be changed in Spring 2003 from Comet Wirtanen to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the landing team re-analysed Philae?s ability to cope. Because Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko is larger than Wirtanen, three times the radius, it will have a larger gravitational field with which to pull down Philae.

In testing it was discovered that the landing gear is capable of withstanding a landing of 1.5 metres per second ? this was better than originally assumed.

In addition, Rosetta will gently push out the lander from a low altitude, to lessen its fall. In the re-analysis, one small worry was that Philae might just topple, if it landed on a slope at high speed. So the lander team developed a special device called a ?tilt limiter?, and attached it to the lander before lift-off, to prevent this happening.

In fact, the unknown nature of the landing environment only serves to highlight why the Rosetta mission is vital in the first place. Astronomers and planetary scientists need to learn more about these dirty snowballs that orbit the Sun.

Original Source: ESA News Release