Rosetta Discovery of Surprise Molecular Breakup Mechanism in Comet Coma Alters Perceptions

A NASA science instrument flying aboard the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft has made a very surprising discovery – namely that the molecular breakup mechanism of “water and carbon dioxide molecules spewing from the comet’s surface” into the atmosphere of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is caused by “electrons close to the surface.”

The surprising results relating to the emission of the comet coma came from measurements gathered by the probes NASA funded Alice instrument and is causing scientists to completely rethink what we know about the wandering bodies, according to the instruments science team.

“The discovery we’re reporting is quite unexpected,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for the Alice instrument at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, in a statement.

“It shows us the value of going to comets to observe them up close, since this discovery simply could not have been made from Earth or Earth orbit with any existing or planned observatory. And, it is fundamentally transforming our knowledge of comets.”

A paper reporting the Alice findings has been accepted for publication by the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, according to statements from NASA and ESA.

Alice is a spectrograph that focuses on sensing the far-ultraviolet wavelength band and is the first instrument of its kind to operate at a comet.

Until now it had been thought that photons from the sun were responsible for causing the molecular breakup, said the team.

The carbon dioxide and water are being released from the nucleus and the excitation breakup occurs barely half a mile above the comet’s nucleus.

“Analysis of the relative intensities of observed atomic emissions allowed the Alice science team to determine the instrument was directly observing the “parent” molecules of water and carbon dioxide that were being broken up by electrons in the immediate vicinity, about six-tenths of a mile (one kilometer) from the comet’s nucleus.”

The excitation mechanism is detailed in the graphic below.

Rosetta’s continued close study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has revealed an unexpected process at work close to the comet nucleus that causes the rapid breakup of water and carbon dioxide molecules.   Credits: ESA/ATG medialab; ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
Rosetta’s continued close study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has revealed an unexpected process at work close to the comet nucleus that causes the rapid breakup of water and carbon dioxide molecules. Credits: ESA/ATG medialab; ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

“The spatial variation of the emissions along the slit indicates that the excitation occurs within a few hundred meters of the surface and the gas and dust production are correlated,” according to the Astronomy and Astrophysics journal paper.

The data shows that the water and CO2 molecules break up via a two-step process.

“First, an ultraviolet photon from the Sun hits a water molecule in the comet’s coma and ionises it, knocking out an energetic electron. This electron then hits another water molecule in the coma, breaking it apart into two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, and energising them in the process. These atoms then emit ultraviolet light that is detected at characteristic wavelengths by Alice.”

“Similarly, it is the impact of an electron with a carbon dioxide molecule that results in its break-up into atoms and the observed carbon emissions.”

After a decade long chase of over 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles), ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft arrived at the pockmarked Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Aug. 6, 2014 for history’s first ever attempt to orbit a comet for long term study.

Since then, Rosetta deployed the Philae landing craft to accomplish history’s first ever touchdown on a comets nucleus. It has also orbited the comet for over 10 months of up close observation, coming at times to as close as 8 kilometers. It is equipped with a suite 11 instruments to analyze every facet of the comet’s nature and environment.

Comet 67P is still becoming more and more active as it orbits closer and closer to the sun over the next two months. The pair reach perihelion on August 13, 2015 at a distance of 186 million km from the Sun, between the orbits of Earth and Mars.

Alice works by examining light emitted from the comet to understand the chemistry of the comet’s atmosphere, or coma and determine the chemical composition with the far-ultraviolet spectrograph.

According to the measurements from Alice, the water and carbon dioxide in the comet’s atmospheric coma originate from plumes erupting from its surface.

“It is similar to those that the Hubble Space Telescope discovered on Jupiter’s moon Europa, with the exception that the electrons at the comet are produced by solar radiation, while the electrons at Europa come from Jupiter’s magnetosphere,” said Paul Feldman, an Alice co-investigator from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, in a statement.

Jets of gas and dust are blasting from the active neck of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in this photo mosaic assembled from four images taken on 26 September 2014 by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 26.3 kilometers (16 miles) from the center of the comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Rosetta discovered an unexpected process at comet nucleus that causes the rapid breakup of water and carbon dioxide molecules. Jets of gas and dust are blasting from the active neck of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in this photo mosaic assembled from four images taken on 26 September 2014 by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 26.3 kilometers (16 miles) from the center of the comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Other instruments aboard Rosetta including MIRO, ROSINA and VIRTIS, which study relative abundances of coma constituents, corroborate the Alice findings.

“These early results from Alice demonstrate how important it is to study a comet at different wavelengths and with different techniques, in order to probe various aspects of the comet environment,” says ESA’s Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor, in a statement.

“We’re actively watching how the comet evolves as it moves closer to the Sun along its orbit towards perihelion in August, seeing how the plumes become more active due to solar heating, and studying the effects of the comet’s interaction with the solar wind.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Help Researchers Track Comet 67/P Through Perihelion

Calling all light-bucket scope owners: the folks at the European Space Agency want to enlist you in the quest to monitor Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from our Earthbound perspective through perihelion later this summer.

“We are looking to bring an entire community of professional and amateur observers together,” said Rosetta Coordinator of Amateur Observations for Comet 67/P C-G Padma A. Yanamandra-Fisher in a recent press release. “When else can you observe a comet at the same time a spacecraft is viewing it at close proximity and escorting it to perihelion, and be able to correlate both sets of findings?

The Rosetta story thus far has been an amazing tale of discovery. We’ve extensively chronicled the historic approach of the Rosetta spacecraft as the rubber-duck-shaped comet grew in its view here at Universe Today. The world also held its collective breath as the Philae lander, the little washing Euro- washing machine-sized spacecraft that could, descended on to the alien surface. Heck, Philae even knocked a Kardashian out of the top trending spot worldwide, a feat in and of itself.

We also documented the Spinal Tap-esque “None more black” nature of the comet.

Image credit:
The orbit of comet 67/P Image credit: JPL/NASA

Prospects in 2015: As of this writing, Comet 67P/C-G is 1.9 AU from the Sun and closing. The ‘P’ in ‘67/P’  stands for ‘short term (less than 200 years) periodic,’ and the comet orbits the Sun once every 6.44 years. Perihelion for 67/P occurs on August 13th, 2015 when the comet reaches a distance of 1.24 AU ( 191 million kilometres) from the Sun.

Discovered in 1969 by the Kiev University’s Klim Ivanovych Churyumov while examining a photograph taken by Svetlana Gerasimenko, this is the comet’s seventh apparition. Currently shining at +18th magnitude in the constellation Aquarius, Comet 67P C-G will vault up in the early morning sky for northern hemisphere observers and cross the ecliptic plane in the last week of July, at 43 degrees elongation west of the Sun.

Image credit:
Light curve for Comet 67/P. Image credit: Seiichi Yoshida ([email protected])

The comet is expected to reach a maximum brightness of +11th magnitude near perihelion. Historically, 67P – like most comets – tend to under-perform before perihelion, only to have an energetic lingering outburst phase post-perihelion.

“With each apparition we see it (67P) behave differently.” Yanamandra-Fisher said. “These legacy data sets will aid in our knowledge of this comet, especially when used in combination with the data gathered by the Rosetta spacecraft and the new ground observations made this year.”

Image credit: Starry Night Education software
The path of 67/P through the morning sky as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

Time on professional scopes is always chronically in short supply, with more astronomers and targets to observe than there are telescopes available. That’s where amateur observers come in. Many private backyard observatories have instruments that would be the envy of many a major institution.  Though the press release suggests that the minimum aperture size needed to observe 67P this summer is 14-inches (35 cm), we urge 10” or 12” inch scope owners – especially those who have the latest generation of Mallincam and faint object CCD  imagers – to give it a try. We’ve seen some amazing results with these, even during quick casual observing sessions such as public star parties! The Rosetta team is looking for everything from professional grade images, to sketches and visual observations with magnitude estimations.

Of course, hunting faint comets is a daunting task at best. +10th magnitude is generally our cut-off for  ‘is interesting enough to alert the public’ in terms of novae or comets, though we’ll let 67/P ‘into the club’ due to its celebrity status.

Image credit and copyright:
Comet 67/P from June 23rd, 2014. Image credit and copyright: Efrain Morales

To add to the challenge, the comet is only visible against a dark sky during a brief pre-dawn window. You’ll need a planetarium program (we use Starry Night Pro) to generate good finder charts down to 15th magnitude or so. Keep in mind, comets also typically appear a bit fainter visually than stars of the same magnitude due to the fact that said brightness is spread out over a broad surface area.

ESA also has a great page with an ephemeris generator to help you in your 67/P quest.

“This is truly interactive science that people of all observing levels can participate in- from amateurs to professionals.” Yanamandra-Fischer said in closing.

Image credit
The orbit of comet 67/P. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Other comets to watch for in 2015 include still bright 2014 Q2 Lovejoy, C/2013 US10 Catalina, C/2014 Q1 PanSTARRS, and 19P/Borrelly.

What’ll happen as 67P approaches perihelion? Will those two gigantic lobes crack and separate as Rosetta and the world looks on? Now, I’d pay to see that!

Image credit: David Dickinson
A light bucket scope at the Bruneau Dunes observatory suitable for a faint comet quest. Image credit: David Dickinson

-Register for the Rosetta observation campaign here.