Check Out This Huge Rock On The Surface Of Rosetta’s Comet!

As the Rosetta spacecraft drops a bit closer to its target comet, some really cool features are popping into view. For example, look at this picture of a 150-foot (45-meter) rock on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which was taken in September and released today (Oct. 9). And it’s led to the decision to have an Egyptian theme to naming features on the comet.

“It stands out among a group of boulders in the smooth region located on the lower side of 67P/C-G’s larger lobe,” ESA stated in a release. “This cluster of boulders reminded scientists of the famous pyramids at Giza near Cairo in Egypt, and thus it has been named Cheops for the largest of those pyramids, the Great Pyramid, which was built as a tomb for the pharaoh Cheops (also known as Kheops or Khufu) around 2550 BC.”

Scientists are still trying to figure out what the boulders are made of, and how they are formed, as the spacecraft moves into a “close observation phase” tomorrow (Oct. 10) where it is only 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the surface.

A wider field of view of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on the larger lobe, where the boulder Cheops is located. This picture was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft shortly after its arrival in August. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
A wider field of view of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on the larger lobe, where the boulder Cheops is located. This picture was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft shortly after its arrival in August. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Meanwhile, some new results are coming from an asteroid that the spacecraft whizzed by a couple of years ago. In the picture below, you can see evidence of a crater that Rosetta didn’t even see!

The grooves you see there on Lutetia (which Rosetta imaged in 2010) hint at shock waves from various craters, including one that was likely on the hidden side of the asteroid relative to Rosetta as it flew by. The suspected crater is called “Suspicio.” While craters have been found in other asteroids visited by spacecraft, grooves are rarer.

“The way in which grooves are formed on these bodies is still widely debated, but it likely involves impacts,” ESA stated. “Shock waves from the impact travel through the interior of a small, porous body and fracture the surface to form the grooves.”

A paper on the research will be published in Planetary and Space Science this month, led by Sebastien Besse, a research fellow at ESA’s Technical Centre. For more information, check out this release from ESA.

A part of asteroid Lutetia imaged by the Rosetta spacecraft in 2010. The grooves you see are colored according to the crater scientists believe it’s associated with. The blue lines are from a suspected, unseen crater called “Suspicio”. Red is associated with the known crater Massilia and purple for the North Pole Crater Cluster. Yellow is unassociated with craters considered in this study. Credit: Data: Besse et al (2014); image: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Getting to Know Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

We’re finally getting to know the icy nucleus behind comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. For all the wonder that comets evoke, we on Earth never see directly what whips up the coma and tail. Even professional telescopes can’t burrow through the dust and vapor cloaking the nucleus to distinguish the clear outline of a comet’s heart. The only way to see one is to fly a camera there.

Asteroids we've seen up close show cratered surfaces similar to yet different from much of the cratering on comets. Credit:
Asteroids we’ve seen up close show cratered surfaces similar to yet different from much of the cratering so far seen on comets. Not to scale. Credit: NASA except for Steins (ESA)

Rosetta took 10 years to reach 67P/C-G, a craggy, boot-shaped body that resembles an asteroid in appearance but with key differences. Asteroids shown in close up photos often display typical bowl-shaped impact craters. From the photos to date, 67P/C-G’s ‘craters’ look shallow and flat in comparison. Were they impacts smoothed by ice flows over time? Did some of the dust and vapor spewed by the comet settle back on the surface to partially bury and soften the landscape?

Comet 81P/Wild 2 photographed during the Stardust mission in 2004. Wild 2 measures 1.03 x 1.24 x 1.71 miles and goes around the sun once every 6.4 years. Its surfaced is riddled with flat-bottomed craters, some of which may also be gas vents from vaporized ice. Credit: NASA
Comet 81P/Wild 2 photographed during the Stardust mission in 2004. Wild 2 measures 1.03 x 1.24 x 1.71 miles and goes around the sun once every 6.4 years. Its surfaced is riddled with flat-bottomed depressions some of which may also vent gas from vaporizing ice. Click for more 81P/Wild 2 photos. Credit: NASA

While 67P is doubtless its own comet, it does share certain similarities with Comet 81P/Wild including at least a few crater-like depressions seen during NASA’s Stardust mission. In January 2004, the spacecraft gathered photos, measurements and dust samples during its brief flyby of the nucleus. Photos reveal pinnacles, flat-bottomed depressions and bright plumes or jets of vaporizing ice.

Some of the comets we've seen close up through the eyes of visiting spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Some of the comets we’ve seen close up through the eyes of visiting spacecraft. Credit: NASA

In a 2004 paper by Donald Brownlee and team, the group experimentally reproduced the flat-floored craters by firing projectiles into resin-coated sand baked a bit to make it cohere. Their results suggest the craters formed from impacts in loosely compacted material under the low-gravity conditions typical of small objects like comets. To quote the paper: “Most disrupted material stayed inside the cavity and formed a flat-floored deposit and steep cliffs formed the rim.” Icy materials mixed with dust may have also played a role in their appearance and other crater-like depressions called pit-halos.

Latest image of the comet taken by Rosetta's navigation camera on August 2, 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam
Latest image of the comet taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera from a distance of only 311 miles (500 km) on August 2, 2014. The comet’s larger size in the field means fewer artifacts. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam

Speculation isn’t science, so I’ll stop here. So much more data will be streaming in soon, we’ll have our hands full. On Wednesday, August 6th, Rosetta will enter orbit around the nucleus and begin detailed studies that will continue through December 2015. Studying the new pictures now arriving daily, I’m struck by the dual nature of comets. We see an ancient landscape and yet one that looks strangely contemporary as the sun vaporizes ice, reworking the terrain like a child molding clay.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is well-placed in the mid-summer sky in Sagittarius but impossibly faint to see visually. Dave Herald's photo taken on August 21, 2014 shows only a tiny fuzz of magnitude +21. Credits: Background: Stellarium; David Herald
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is well-placed in the mid-summer sky in Sagittarius but impossibly faint visually. Dave Herald’s photo taken on August 21, 2014 shows only a tiny fuzz of magnitude +21. Credits: Dave Herald;  Stellarium

Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 to July 31, 2014, with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s coma on July 25 from a distance of around 3000 km. On July 31 Rosetta had approached to within 1327 km. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Story updated[/caption]

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft is at last rapidly closing in on its target destination, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, after a decade long chase of 6.4 billion kilometers through interplanetary space. See imagery above and below.

As of today, Friday, August 1, ESA reports that Rosetta has approached the ‘rubber ducky looking’ comet to within a distance of less than 1153 kilometers. That distance narrows with each passing moment as the speeding robotic probe moves closer and closer to the comet while looping around the sun at about 55,000 kilometers per hour (kph).

Rosetta is now just 5 days away from becoming Earth’s first probe ever to rendezvous and enter orbit around a comet.

See above our image collage of Rosetta nearing final approach with the spacecrafts most recent daily Navcam camera images, all taken within the past week starting on July 25 and including up to the most recently release image snapped on July 31. The navcam images are all to scale to give the sense of the spacecraft approaching the comet and revealing ever greater detail as it grows in apparent size in the cameras field of view. The navcam images were also taken at about the same time of day each day.

The highest resolution navcam image yet of the two lobed comet – merged at a bright band – was taken on July 31 from a distance of 1327 kilometers and published within the past few hours by ESA today, Aug 1. It shows the best view yet of the surface features of the mysterious bright necked wanderer composed of primordial ice, rock, dust and more.

The Navcam collage is combined with an OSIRIS (Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System) wide angle camera view of the comet and its asymmetric coma of ice and dust snapped on July 25 from a distance of around 3000 km, and with an exposure time of 300 seconds. The OSIRIS image covers an area of about 150 x 150 km (90 mi x 90 mi). The images have been contrast enhanced to bring out more detail.

Scientists speculate that the comets bright neck region could be caused by differences in material or grain size or topological effects.

Rosetta’s history making orbital feat is slated for Aug. 6 following the final short duration orbit insertion burns on Aug. 3 and Aug. 6 to place Rosetta into orbit at an altitude of about 100 kilometers (62 miles) where it will study and map the 4 kilometer wide comet for some 17 months.

The comet rotates around once every 12.4 hours.

Crop from the 31 July processed image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, to focus on the comet nucleus. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
Crop from the 31 July processed image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, to focus on the comet nucleus. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

“If any glitches in space or on ground had delayed the most recent burns, orbital mechanics dictate that we’d only have had a matter of a few days to fix the problem, re-plan the burn and carry it out, otherwise we run the risk of missing the comet,” says Trevor Morley, a flight dynamics specialist at ESOC.

In November 2014 the Rosetta mothership will deploy the Philae science lander for the first ever attempt to land on a comet’s nucleus using harpoons to anchor itself to the surface while the comet is rotating.

As Rosetta edges closer on its final lap, engineers at mission control at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), in Darmstadt, Germany have commanded the probes navigation camera (navcam) to capture daily images while the other science instruments also collect measurements analyzing the comets physical characteristics and chemical composition in detail.

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This image collage from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant).  Top row shows images as seen by spacecraft. Bottom row shows images rotated to same orientation.  Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM. Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This image collage from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant). Top row shows images as seen by spacecraft. Bottom row shows images rotated to same orientation. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM. Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

The probe has already discovered that the comet’s surface temperature is surprisingly warm at –70ºC, which is some 20–30ºC warmer than predicted. This indicates the surface is too hot to be covered in ice and must instead have a dark, dusty crust, says ESA.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a short period comet some 555 million kilometres from the Sun at this time, about three times further away than Earth and located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars.

You can watch the Aug. 6 orbital arrival live via a livestream transmission from ESA’s spacecraft operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

While you were reading this the gap between the comet and Rosetta closed to less than 1000 kilometers!

The coma of Rosetta's target comet as seen with the OSIRIS wide-angle camera. The image spans 150 km and was taken on 25 July 2014 with an exposure time of 330 seconds. The greyscale relates to the particle density in the coma, with highest density close to the nucleus, becoming more diffuse further away. The hazy circular structure on the right is an artefact. The nucleus is also overexposured. The specks and the streaks in the background are attributed to background stars and cosmic rays.  Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
The coma of Rosetta’s target comet as seen with the OSIRIS wide-angle camera. The image spans 150 km and was taken on 25 July 2014 with an exposure time of 330 seconds. The greyscale relates to the particle density in the coma, with highest density close to the nucleus, becoming more diffuse further away. The hazy circular structure on the right is an artefact. The nucleus is also overexposured. The specks and the streaks in the background are attributed to background stars and cosmic rays. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with negative OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA    Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with negative OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Birthday cakes at @ESA_Rosetta Flight Dynamics are taking strange binary shapes these days... #ESOC. Credit:  ESA
Birthday cakes at @ESA_Rosetta Flight Dynamics are taking strange binary shapes these days… #ESOC. Credit: ESA

Rosetta’s Lander Facing An Unexpected Comet Shape: A Double Nucleus

A view of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s nucleus, appearing to show a double binary. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

It appears that Rosetta’s comet has a double nucleus. A video from the spacecraft speeding towards Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko shows what looks two lobes touching each other, which could send a small wrinkle in the plans to land Philae on the comet’s surface later this year.

Edit, July 17: As the original video was removed off of YouTube, we have now replaced it with a GIF of the comet from here.

Citing a French space agency webpage that is now unavailable, the Planetary Society’s Emily Lakdawalla said she can hardly wait to see more views of the comet.

“The nucleus of the comet is clearly a contact binary — two smaller (and unequally sized object) in close contact,” she wrote, adding the nucleus measures 4 kilometers by 3.5 kilometers (2.5 miles by 2.17 miles).

It has a rotational period of about 12.4 hours.

“Philippe Lamy is quoted as estimating that the two components would have come into contact at a relative speed of about 3 meters per second in order to stick together in this way … This unusual shape could present a navigational challenge for the Philae lander team.

“The CNES release quotes Philae navigator Eric Jurado,” she continued, “as saying that ‘navigation around such a body should not be much more complex than around a nucleus of irregular spherical type, but landing the Philae probe [scheduled for November 11], however, could be more difficult, as this form restricts potential landing zones.’ ”

A view from the Rosetta spacecraft on July 11, 2014 showing what appears to be double lobes in the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Screenshot from YouTube. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
A view from the Rosetta spacecraft on July 11, 2014 showing what appears to be double lobes in the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Screenshot from YouTube. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Only a handful of spacecraft have ever got up close to a comet (see the picture gallery of the others here). While a contact binary may be a surprise to scientists, the irregular shape spotted from afar was something that we’ve seen before in other comets.

“Irregular, elongated, and structured shapes are not uncommon for small bodies such as asteroids and comets,” stated the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in a release last week. “Of the five cometary nuclei that have been visited by spacecraft in close flybys so far, all are far from spherical.”

Makes us all eager to see what Rosetta finds out as it draws closer to the comet, for its rendezvous in August. The spacecraft will remain with the comet as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko makes its closest approach to the Sun in 2015.

Some astronomers are already having fun imagining the possibilities of the new shape, such as the University of California, Berkeley’s Alex Parker.

Rosetta Watches Comet 67P Tumbling Through Space

This is really getting exciting! ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft (and the piggybacked Philae lander) are in the home stretch to arrive at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 34 days and the comet is showing up quite nicely in Rosetta’s narrow-angle camera. The animation above, assembled from 36 NAC images acquired last week, shows 67P/C-G rotating over a total elapsed time of 12.4 hours. No longer just an extra-bright pixel, it looks like a thing now!

The animation, although fascinating, only hints at the “true” shape of the comet’s nucleus. Reflected light does create a bloom effect in the imaging sensor, especially at such small resolutions, expanding the apparent size of the comet beyond its 4-by-4-pixel size. But rest assured that much, much better images are on the way as Rosetta gets closer and closer.

Read more: How Big is Rosetta’s Comet?

The spacecraft was about 86,000 km (53,440 miles) from 67P/C-G when the images were acquired. Since that time it has cut that distance in half, and by this weekend it will be less than 36,000 km (22,370 miles) from the comet. After more than a decade of traveling around the inner Solar System Rosetta is finally arriving at its goal! Click here to see where Rosetta is now.

Stay tuned for more exciting updates from Rosetta, and learn more about the mission below:

Source: ESA’s Rosetta blog

Animation credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA 

It’s Alive! Rosetta’s Comet Flares As It Approaches The Sun

Wow! This image shows the target comet for the Rosetta mission starting to develop a tail. This bodes well for the European Space Agency spacecraft, which is on its way to study Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko later this year to learn more about the origins of the solar system.

“It’s beginning to look like a real comet,” stated Holger Sierks, principal investigator for OSIRIS (Optical, Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging System.)

“It’s hard to believe that only a few months from now, Rosetta will be deep inside this cloud of dust and en route to the origin of the comet’s activity,” added Sierks, who is with the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany.

The picture was one of a series taken over six weeks, between March 27 and May 4, as the spacecraft zoomed to within 1.24 million miles (two million kilometers) of the target. You can see the full animation by clicking on the image below.

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko develops a coma in this sequence of pictures taken by Rosetta, a European Space Agency spacecraft. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko develops a coma in this sequence of pictures taken by Rosetta (click the picture to see the animation), a European Space Agency spacecraft. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

The comet is now about four times as far from the Sun as the Earth is. Even from afar, the Sun’s heat is warming the comet’s ice, causing dust and vapor to carry out into space — forming the coma. The coma will develop into a long tail when the comet gets even closer to the sun.

Rosetta will be the comet’s companion as it draws closer to the sun; its closest approach will be in August 2015, when it is between the orbits of Earth and Mars. So far, the spacecraft’s 11 instruments appear to be in excellent health, ESA stated, although the agency is remaining cautious as the rendezvous date approaches. The spacecraft will begin orbital insertion activities later this month, and send out its Philae lander in November.

“We have a challenging three months ahead of us as we navigate closer to the comet, but after a 10-year journey it’s great to be able to say that our spacecraft is ready to conduct unique science at comet 67P/C-G,” stated Fred Jansen, ESA’s Rosetta mission manager.

Source: European Space Agency

Rosetta Spacecraft Spies Its Comet As It Prepares For An August Encounter

As Rosetta limbers up for its close-up encounter with a comet, we have visual confirmation that it’s on the right track! The comet spied its destination — Comet 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko — using its OSIRIS wide-angle camera and narrow-angle camera on March 20 and March 21.

“Finally seeing our target after a 10 year journey through space is an incredible feeling,” stated OSIRIS principal investigator Holger Sierks from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany. “These first images taken from such a huge distance show us that OSIRIS is ready for the upcoming adventure.”

The image comes as Rosetta is preparing its science instruments for its encounter in August.

“Currently, Rosetta is on a trajectory that would, if unchanged, take it past the comet at a distance of approximately 50 000 km and at a relative speed of 800 m/s. A critical series of manoeuvres beginning in May will gradually reduce Rosetta’s velocity relative to the comet to just 1 m/s and bring it to within 100 km by the first week of August,” the European Space Agency stated.

Here’s an animation of how big the comet will appear to Rosetta as it gets closer:

“Between May and August the 4 km-wide comet will gradually ‘grow’ in Rosetta’s field of view from appearing to have a diameter of less than one camera pixel to well over 2000 pixels – equivalent to a resolution of around 2 m per pixel – allowing the first surface features to be resolved.”

For more information on the science commissioning, check out the Rosetta blog.

Artist's impression (not to scale) of the Rosetta orbiter deploying the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau/ATG medialab.
Artist’s impression (not to scale) of the Rosetta orbiter deploying the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau/ATG medialab.