Spectacular Celestial Fireworks Commemorate Perihelion Passage of Rosetta’s Comet

Sequence of OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images from 12 August 2015, just a few hours before the comet reached perihelion. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
See hi res images below[/caption]

A spectacular display of celestial fireworks like none ever witnessed before, burst forth from Rosetta’s comet right on time – commemorating the Europeans spacecraft’s history making perihelion passage after a year long wait of mounting excitement and breathtaking science.

As the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Rosetta marked its closest approach to the Sun (perihelion) at exactly 02:03 GMT on Thursday, August 13, 2015, while orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, its suite of 11 state-of-the-art science instruments, cameras and spectrometers were trained on the utterly bizarre bi-lobed body to capture every facet of the comet’s nature and environment for analysis by the gushing science teams.

And the perihelion passage did not disappoint – living up to its advance billing by spewing forth an unmatched display of otherworldly outbursts of gas jets and dust particles due to surface heating from the warming effects of the sun as the comet edged ever closer, coming within 186 million kilometers of mighty Sol.

ESA has released a brand new series of images, shown above and below, documenting sparks flying – as seen by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera and NAVCAM wider angle cameras on August 12 and 13 – just a few hours before the rubby ducky shaped comet reached perihelion along its 6.5-year orbit around the sun.

Images of Comet 67P/C-G taken with OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 12 August 2015, just a few hours before the comet reached perihelion, about 330 km from the comet. The individual images are also available below. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Images of Comet 67P/C-G taken with OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 12 August 2015, just a few hours before the comet reached perihelion, about 330 km from the comet. The individual images are also available below. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Indeed the navcam camera image below was taken just an hour before the moment of perihelion, at 01:04 GMT, from a distance of around 327 kilometers!

Frozen ices are seen blasting away from the comet in a hail of gas and dust particles as rising solar radiation heats the nucleus and fortifies the comet’s atmosphere, or coma, and its tail.

Comet at perihelion.  Single frame Rosetta navigation camera image acquired at 01:04 GMT on 13 August 2015, just one hour before Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko reached perihelion – the closest point to the Sun along its 6.5-year orbit. The image was taken around 327 km from the comet. It has a resolution of 28 m/pixel, measures 28.6 km across and was processed to bring out the details of the comet's activity. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
Comet at perihelion. Single frame Rosetta navigation camera image acquired at 01:04 GMT on 13 August 2015, just one hour before Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko reached perihelion – the closest point to the Sun along its 6.5-year orbit. The image was taken around 327 km from the comet. It has a resolution of 28 m/pixel, measures 28.6 km across and was processed to bring out the details of the comet’s activity. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

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 exactly a year ago on Aug. 6, 2014 for history’s first ever attempt to orbit a comet for long term study.

In the interim, Rosetta also deployed the piggybacked Philae lander for history’s first landing on a comet on Nov. 12, 2014.

In fact, measurements from Rosetta’s science instruments confirm the comet is belching a thousand times more water vapor today than was observed during Rosetta’s arrival a year ago. It’s spewing some 300 kg of water vapour every second now, compared to just 300 g per second upon arrival. That equates to two bathtubs per second now in Aug. 2015 vs. two small glasses of water per second in Aug. 2014.

Besides gas, 1000 kg of dust per second is simultaneously erupting from the nucleus, “creating dangerous working conditions for Rosetta,” says ESA.

“In recent days, we have been forced to move even further away from the comet. We’re currently at a distance of between 325 km and 340 km this week, in a region where Rosetta’s startrackers can operate without being confused by excessive dust levels – without them working properly, Rosetta can’t position itself in space,” comments Sylvain Lodiot, ESA’s spacecraft operations manager, in an ESA statement.

Here’s an OSIRIS image taken just hours prior to perihelion, that’s included in the lead animation of this story.

OSIRIS NAC image of Comet 67P/C-G taken on 12 August 2015 at 17:35 GMT. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
OSIRIS NAC image of Comet 67P/C-G taken on 12 August 2015 at 17:35 GMT. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

The period of the comet’s peak intensity, as seen in all these images, is expected to continue past perihelion for several weeks at least and fulfils the dreams of a scientific goldmine for all the research teams and hundreds of researchers involved with Rosetta and Philae.

“Activity will remain high like this for many weeks, and we’re certainly looking forward to seeing how many more jets and outburst events we catch in the act, as we have already witnessed in the last few weeks,” says Nicolas Altobelli, acting Rosetta project scientist.

And Rosetta still has lots of fuel, and just as important – funding – to plus up its ground breaking science discoveries.

ESA recently granted Rosetta a 9 month mission extension to continue its research activities as well as having been given the chance to accomplish one final and daring historic challenge.

Engineers will attempt to boldly go and land the probe on the undulating surface of the comet.

Officials with the European Space Agency (ESA) gave the “GO” on June 23 saying “The adventure continues” for Rosetta to march forward with mission operations until the end of September 2016.

If all continues to go well “the spacecraft will most likely be landed on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko” said ESA.

ESA Philae lander approaches comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November 2014 as imaged from Rosetta orbiter after deployment and during seven hour long approach for 1st ever  touchdown on a comets surface.  Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA - Composition by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA Philae lander approaches comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November 2014 as imaged from Rosetta orbiter after deployment and during seven hour long approach for 1st ever touchdown on a comets surface. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA – Composition by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

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

Ken Kremer

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
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 Orbiter Approved for Extended Mission and Bold Comet Landing

Rosetta will attempt comet landing
This single frame Rosetta navigation camera image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken on 15 June 2015 from a distance of 207 km from the comet centre. The image has a resolution of 17.7 m/pixel and measures 18.1 km across. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0 [/caption]

Europe’s history making Rosetta cometary spacecraft has been granted a nine month mission extension to plus up its bountiful science discoveries as well as been given the chance to accomplish one final and daring historic challenge, as engineers attempt to boldly go and land the probe on the undulating surface of the comet its currently orbiting.

Officials with the European Space Agency (ESA) gave the “GO” on June 23 saying “The adventure continues” for Rosetta to march forward with mission operations until the end of September 2016.

If all continues to go well “the spacecraft will most likely be landed on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko” said ESA to the unabashed glee of the scientists and engineers responsible for leading Rosetta and reaping the rewards of nearly a year of groundbreaking research since the probe arrived at comet 67P in August 2014.

“This is fantastic news for science,” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta Project Scientist, in a statement.

It will take about 3 months for Rosetta to spiral down to the surface.

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 piggybacked Philae landing craft to accomplish history’s first ever touchdown on a comets nucleus on November 12, 2014. 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.

ESA Philae lander approaches comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November 2014 as imaged from Rosetta orbiter after deployment and during seven hour long approach for 1st ever  touchdown on a comets surface.  Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA - Composition by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA Philae lander approaches comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November 2014 as imaged from Rosetta orbiter after deployment and during seven hour long approach for 1st ever touchdown on a comets surface. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA – Composition by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Currently, Comet 67P is still becoming more and more active as it orbits closer and closer to the sun over the next two months. The mission extension will enable researchers to a far greater period of time to compare the comets activity, physical and chemical properties and evolution ‘before and after’ they arrive at perihelion some six weeks from today.

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.

“We’ll be able to monitor the decline in the comet’s activity as we move away from the Sun again, and we’ll have the opportunity to fly closer to the comet to continue collecting more unique data. By comparing detailed ‘before and after’ data, we’ll have a much better understanding of how comets evolve during their lifetimes.”

Because the comet is nearly at its peak of outgassing and dust spewing activity, Rosetta must observe the comet from a stand off distance, while still remaining at a close proximity, to avoid damage to the probe and its instruments.

Furthermore, the Philae lander “awoke” earlier this month after entering a sven month hibernation period after successfully compleing some 60 hours of science observations from the surface.

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
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

As the comet again edges away from the sun and becomes less active, the team will attempt to land Rosetta on comet 67P before it runs out of fuel and the energy produced from the huge solar panels is insufficient to continue mission operations.

“This time, as we’re riding along next to the comet, the most logical way to end the mission is to set Rosetta down on the surface,” says Patrick Martin, Rosetta Mission Manager.

“But there is still a lot to do to confirm that this end-of-mission scenario is possible. We’ll first have to see what the status of the spacecraft is after perihelion and how well it is performing close to the comet, and later we will have to try and determine where on the surface we can have a touchdown.”

During the extended mission, the team will use the experience gained in operating Rosetta in the challenging cometary environment to carry out some new and potentially slightly riskier investigations, including flights across the night-side of the comet to observe the plasma, dust, and gas interactions in this region, and to collect dust samples ejected close to the nucleus, says ESA.

Rosetta’s lander Philae has returned the first panoramic image from the surface of a comet. The view as it has been captured by the CIVA-P imaging system, shows a 360º view around the point of final touchdown. The three feet of Philae’s landing gear can be seen in some of the frames.  Superimposed on top of the image is a sketch of the Philae lander in the configuration the lander team currently believe it is in.  The view has been processed to show further details.   Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA. Post processing: Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Rosetta’s lander Philae has returned the first panoramic image from the surface of a comet. The view as it has been captured by the CIVA-P imaging system, shows a 360º view around the point of final touchdown. The three feet of Philae’s landing gear can be seen in some of the frames. Superimposed on top of the image is a sketch of the Philae lander in the configuration the lander team currently believe it is in. The view has been processed to show further details. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA. Post processing: Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Rosetta, SpaceX, Europa, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Jun 25-28: “SpaceX launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

This single frame Rosetta navigation camera image was taken from a distance of 77.8 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 22 March 2015. The image has a resolution of 6.6 m/pixel and measures 6 x 6 km. The image is cropped and processed to bring out the details of the comet’s activity. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
This single frame Rosetta navigation camera image was taken from a distance of 77.8 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 22 March 2015. The image has a resolution of 6.6 m/pixel and measures 6 x 6 km. The image is cropped and processed to bring out the details of the comet’s activity. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

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.