Why is there so little nitrogen in Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P)? That’s a question scientists asked themselves when they looked at the data from the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft. In fact, it’s a question they ask themselves every time they measure the gases in a comet’s coma. When Rosetta visited the comet in 2014, it measured the gases and found that there was very little nitrogen.
In two new papers published in Nature Astronomy, researchers suggest that the nitrogen isn’t really missing at all, it’s just hidden in the building blocks of life.
It seems that comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko is not the stoic, unchanging Solar System traveller that it might seem to be. Scientists working through the vast warehouse of images from the Rosetta spacecraft have discovered there’s lots going on on 67P. Among the activity are collapsing cliffs and bouncing boulders.
Marco is a self-declared Asteroid/Comet whisperer. He’s dabbled in citizen science for years, and he most recently flagged many changes on 67P when this was directly requested through the Rosetta Blog:
http://blogs.esa.int/rosetta/2016/06/03/the-changing-comet-call-for-contributions/ He is currently working on finding evidence for out gassing and stretch at Ultima Thule (similar to 67P), predicting an outburst for RYUGU when an impactor is fired into it in March, and helping with the engineering and physics of a propellant-less thruster based on capacitors called the IMFAB. Marco can be found on twitter at @marcoparigi1.
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In 2014 , the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft made history when it rendezvoused with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This mission would be the first of its kind, where a spacecraft intercepted a comet, followed it as it orbited the Sun, and deployed a lander to its surface. For the next two years, the orbiter would study this comet in the hopes of revealing things about the history of the Solar System.
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.
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.
“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!
ESA scientists have found one additional image from the Rosetta spacecraft hiding in the telemetry. This new image was found in the last bits of data sent by Rosetta immediately before it shut down on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko last year.
Planetary astronomer Andy Rivkin noted on Twitter that for size context, he estimates the block just right of center looks to be about the size of a hat. That’s a fun comparison to have (not to mention thinking about hats on Comet 67P!)
The picture has a scale of 2 mm/pixel and measures about 1 m across. It’s a really ‘close’ close-up of Comet 67P.
“The last complete image transmitted from Rosetta was the final one that we saw arriving back on Earth in one piece moments before the touchdown at Sais,” said Holger Sierks, principal investigator for the OSIRIS camera at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany. “Later, we found a few telemetry packets on our server and thought, wow, that could be another image.”
The team explains that the image data were put into telemetry ‘packets’ aboard Rosetta before they were transmitted to Earth, and the final images were split into six packets. However, for the very last image, the transmission was interrupted after only three full packets. The incomplete data was not recognized as an image by the automatic processing software, but later, the engineers in Göttingen could make sense of these data fragments to reconstruct the image.
You’ll notice it is rather blurry. The OSIRIS camera team says this image only has about 53% of the full data and “therefore represents an image with an effective compression ratio of 1:38 compared to the anticipated compression ratio of 1:20, meaning some of the finer detail was lost.”
That is, it gets a lot blurrier as you zoom in compared with a full-quality image. They compared it to compressing an image to send via email, versus an uncompressed version that you would print out and hang on your wall.
Rosetta’s final resting spot is in a region of active pits in the Ma’at region on the two-lobed, duck-shaped comet.
Launched in 2004, Rosetta traveled nearly 8 billion kilometers and its journey included three Earth flybys and one at Mars, and two asteroid encounters. It arrived at the comet in August 2014 after being in hibernation for 31 months.
After becoming the first spacecraft to orbit a comet, it deployed the Philae lander in November 2014. Philae sent back data for a few days before succumbing to a power loss after it unfortunately landed in a crevice and its solar panels couldn’t receive sunlight.
But Rosetta showed us unprecedented views of Comet 67P and monitored the comet’s evolution as it made its closest approach and then moved away from the Sun. However, Rosetta and the comet moved too far away from the Sun for the spacecraft to receive enough power to continue operations, so the mission plan was to set the spacecraft down on the comet’s surface.
And scientists have continued to sift through the data, and this new image was found. Who knows what else they’ll find, hiding the data?
The Rosetta spacecraft learned a great deal during the two years that it spent monitoring Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – from August 6th, 2014 to September 30th, 2016. As the first spacecraft to orbit the nucleus of a comet, Rosetta was the first space probe to directly image the surface of a comet, and observed some fascinating things in the process.
For instance, the probe was able to document some remarkable changes that took place during the mission with its OSIRIS camera. According to a study published today (March. 21st) in Science, these included growing fractures, collapsing cliffs, rolling boulders and moving material on the comet’s surface that buried some features and exhumed others.
These changes were noticed by comparing images from before and after the comet reached perihelion on August 13th, 2015 – the closets point in its orbit around the Sun. Like all comets, it is during this point in 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s orbit that the surface experiences its highest levels of activity, since perihelion results in greater levels of surface heating, as well as increased tidal stresses.
Basically, as comets gets closer to the Sun, they experience a combination of in-situ weathering and erosion, sublimation of water-ice, and mechanical stresses arising from an increased spin rate. These processes can be either unique and transient, or they can place over longer periods of time.
“Monitoring the comet continuously as it traversed the inner Solar System gave us an unprecedented insight not only into how comets change when they travel close to the Sun, but also how fast these changes take place.”
For instance, in-situ weathering occurs all over the comet and is the result of heating and cooling cycles that happen on both a daily and a seasonal basis. In the case of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s (6.44 Earth years), temperatures range from 180 K (-93 °C; -135 °F) to 230 K (-43 °C; -45 °F) during the course of its orbit. When the comet’s volatile ices warm, they cause consolidated material to weaken, which can cause fragmentation.
Combined with the heating of subsurface ices – which leads to outgassing – this process can result in the sudden collapse of cliff walls. As other photographic evidence that was recently released by the Rosetta science team can attest, this sort of process appears to have taken place in several locations across the comet’s surface.
Similarly, comets experience increased stress because their spin rates speed up as they gets closer to the Sun. This is believed to be what caused the 500 meter-long (1640 ft) fracture that has been observed in the Anuket region. Originally discovered in August of 2014, this fracture appeared to have grown by 30 meters (~100 ft) when it was observed again in December of 2014.
This same process is believed to be responsible for a new fracture that was identified from OSIRIS images taken in June 2016. This 150-300 meter-long (492 – 984 ft) fracture appears to have formed parallel to the original. In addition, photographs taken in February of 2015 and June of 2016 (shown above) revealed how a 4 meter-wide (13 ft) boulder that was sitting close to the fractures appeared to have moved by about 15 meters (49 ft).
Whether or not the two phenomena are related is unclear. But it is clear that something very similar appears to have taken place in the Khonsu region. In this section of the comet (which corresponds to one of its larger lobes), images taken between May of 2015 and June 2016 (shown below) revealed how a much larger boulder appeared to have moved even farther between the two time periods.
This boulder – which measures some 30 meters (98 ft) across and weighs an estimated 12,800 metric tonnes (~14,100 US tons) – moved a distance of about 140 meters (~460 ft). In this case, outgassing during perihelion is believed to be the culprit. On the one hand, it could have caused the surface material to erode beneath it (thus causing it to roll downslope) or by forcibly pushing it.
For some time, it has been known that comets undergo changes during the course of their orbits. Thanks to the Rosetta mission, scientists have been able to see these processes in action for the first time. Much like all space probes, vital information continues to be discovered long after the Rosetta mission officially came to an end. Who knows what else the probe managed to witness during its historic mission, and which we will be privy to?
The Rosetta mission’s close-up views of the curiously-shaped Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko have already changed some long-held ideas about comets. But here’s more: there’s a ‘wind’ blowing across the comet’s surface, creating moving shifting dunes.
“The approach to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko by the spacecraft Rosetta has revealed the presence of astonishing dune-like patterns,” wrote Philippe Claudin, of the Institute of Industrial Physics and Chemistry, Paris, France, in his new paper, noting the unusual and unexpected conditions found on Comet 67P.
Images from Rosetta’s cameras revealed the dusty covering of the comet may be several meters thick in places, which was surprising. But even more surprising was seeing active dunes that are changing. The dunes were seen on both of the ‘lobes’ of the comet as well as on the neck that connects them. Comparisons images taken 16 months of the same region shows evidence that the dunes moved, and are therefore active.
Claudin and his team said that the formation of sedimentary dunes requires the presence of grains and of winds that are strong enough to transport them along the ground. However, comets do not have a dense, permanent and active atmosphere like Earth does. Also, Comet 67P’s gravity is so weak – only about 1/50,000 that of Earth’s – that fast moving grains might be ‘launched’ into space.
What could be creating a wind strong enough that not only moved the grains, but also some boulders up to a meter wide?
There is indeed a wind blowing along the comet’s surface, said Claudin, coming from gases that escape from the surface.
Gases escape at ‘sunset’ on the comet, caused by the pressure difference between the sunlit side, where the surface ice can sublimate due to the energy provided by the sunlight, and the night side.
“This transient atmosphere is still extremely tenuous, with a maximum pressure at perihelion, when the comet is closest to the Sun, 100,000 times lower than on Earth,” the team said in a press release. “However, gravity on the comet is also very weak, and an analysis of the forces exerted on the grains at the comet’s surface shows that these thermal winds can transport centimeter-scale grains, whose presence has been confirmed by images of the ground. The conditions required to allow the formation of dunes, namely winds able to transport the grains along the ground, are thus met on Chury’s surface.”
The transportation of dust has created dune-like ripples, and boulders with ‘wind-tails’ – the boulders act as natural obstacles to the direction of the gas flow, creating streaks of material ‘downwind’ of them.
Claudin said this finding represents a step forward in understanding the various processes at work on cometary surfaces, and also shows the Rosetta mission still has many surprises and discoveries in store.
The Rosetta team has released the final batch of images taken by the NAVCAM during the last month of its two years of investigations at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It’s a big batch and they are absolutely stunning, but its sad to know they are the last NAVCAM images. The image set covers the period from September 2-30, 2016 when the spacecraft was on elliptical orbits that sometimes brought it to within 2 km of the comet’s surface, so you’ll see a wide variety of imagery with a variety of geology and lighting conditions.
Take a look below:
While these are the final NAVCAM images, there may be more images coming from the OSIRIS camera. Also, many other instruments will be releasing data, as they were active as long as possible before impact. Many of the science instruments were expected to return their last data from between 20 meters to 5 meters above the surface.
ROSINA (Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis) collected data on the density of gas around the comet and its composition while GIADA (Grain Impact Analyser and Dust Accumulator) measured the dust density.
RPC’s (Rosetta Plasma Consortium) instrument suite provided a look at interaction between the solar wind and the surface of the comet. Alice, an Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer similar to the one on New Horizons, took high resolution ultraviolet spectra of the surface. RSI (Radio Science Investigation) got the most accurate measurements of the gravity field during descent.
And here’s one of the last five images from Rosetta’s NAVCAM as it descended to its controlled impact on September 30 onto Comet 67P, taking incredible, close-up images during descent, this one just 18.1 km up. It shows the “drippy icing” landscape on this portion of the comet:
With a soft “awwww” from the mission team in the control center in Darmstadt, Germany, the signal from the Rosetta spacecraft faded, indicating the end of its journey. Rosetta made a controlled impact onto Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, sending back incredible close-up images during descent, after two years of investigations at the comet.
“Farewell Rosetta. You have done the job. That was space science at its best,” said Patrick Martin, Rosetta mission manager.
Rosetta’s final resting spot appears to be in a region of active pits in the Ma’at region on the two-lobed, duck-shaped comet.
The information collected during the descent – as well as during the entire mission – will be studied for years. So even though the video below about the mission’s end will likely bring a tear to your eye, rest assured the mission will continue as the science from Rosetta is just getting started.
“Rosetta has entered the history books once again,” says Johann-Dietrich Wörner, ESA’s Director General. “Today we celebrate the success of a game-changing mission, one that has surpassed all our dreams and expectations, and one that continues ESA’s legacy of ‘firsts’ at comets.”
Launched in 2004, Rosetta traveled nearly 8 billion kilometers and its journey included three Earth flybys and one at Mars, and two asteroid encounters. It arrived at the comet in August 2014 after being in hibernation for 31 months.
After becoming the first spacecraft to orbit a comet, it deployed the Philae lander in November 2014. Philae sent back data for a few days before succumbing to a power loss after it unfortunately landed in a crevice and its solar panels couldn’t receive sunlight. But Rosetta continued to monitor the comet’s evolution as it made its closest approach and then moved away from the Sun. However, now Rosetta and the comet are too far away from the Sun for the spacecraft to receive enough power to continue operations.
“We’ve operated in the harsh environment of the comet for 786 days, made a number of dramatic flybys close to its surface, survived several unexpected outbursts from the comet, and recovered from two spacecraft ‘safe modes’,” said operations manager Sylvain Lodiot. “The operations in this final phase have challenged us more than ever before, but it’s a fitting end to Rosetta’s incredible adventure to follow its lander down to the comet.”
Rosetta’s Legacy and Discoveries
Of its many discoveries, Rosetta’s close-up views of the curiously-shaped Comet 67P have already changed some long-held ideas about comets. With the discovery of water with a different ‘flavor’ to that of Earth’s oceans, it appears that Earth impacts of comets like 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko may not have delivered as much of Earth’s water as previously thought.
From Philae, it was determined that even though organic molecules exist on the comet, they might not be the kind that can deliver the chemical prerequisites for life. However, a later study revealed that complex organic molecules exist in the dust surrounding the comet, such as the amino acid glycine, which is commonly found in proteins, and phosphorus, a key component of DNA and cell membranes. This reinforces the idea that the basic building blocks may have been delivered to Earth from an early bombardment of comets.
Rosetta’s long-term monitoring has also shown just how important the comet’s shape is in influencing its seasons, in moving dust across its surface, and in explaining the variations measured in the density and composition of the comet’s coma.
And because of Rosetta’s proximity to the comet, we all went along for the ride as the spacecraft captured views of what happens as a comet comes close to the Sun, with ice sublimating and dusty jets exploding from the surface.
Studies of the comet show it formed in a very cold region of the protoplanetary nebula when the Solar System was forming more than 4.5 billion years ago. The comet’s two lobes likely formed independently, but came together later in a low-speed collision.
“Just as the Rosetta Stone after which this mission was named was pivotal in understanding ancient language and history, the vast treasure trove of Rosetta spacecraft data is changing our view on how comets and the Solar System formed,” said project scientist Matt Taylor.
During the final hours of the mission on Friday morning, the instrument teams watched the data stream in and followed the spacecraft as it moved closer to its targeted touchdown location on the “head” of the 4km-wide comet. The pitted region where Rosetta landed appear to be the places where 67P ejects gas and dust into space, and so Rosetta’s swan song will provide more insight into the comet’s icy jets.
“With the decision to take Rosetta down to the comet’s surface, we boosted the scientific return of the mission through this last, once-in-a-lifetime operation,” said Martin. ““It’s a bittersweet ending, but … Rosetta’s destiny was set a long time ago. But its superb achievements will now remain for posterity and be used by the next generation of young scientists and engineers around the world.”
And so, my final day dawns.
Just a few grains are left to drain through
The hourglass of my life.
The Comet is a hole in the sky.
Rolling, turning, a black void churning
Silently beneath me.
Down there, waiting for me, Philae sleeps,
Its bed a cold cave floor,
A quilt of sparkling hoarfrost
Pulled over its head…
I have so little time left;
I sense Death flying behind me,
I feel his breath on my back as I look down
At Ma’at, its pits as black as tar,
A skulls’s empty eye sockets staring back
At me, daring me to leave the safety
Of this dusty sky and fly down to join them,
Never to spread my wings again; never
To soar over The Comet’s tortured pinnacles and peaks,
Or play hide and seek in its jets and plumes…
I don’t want to go.
I don’t want to be buried beneath that filthy snow.
This is wrong! I want to fly on!
There is so much more for me to see,
So much more to do –
But the end is coming soon.
All I ask of you is this: don’t let me crash.
Help me land softly, kissing the ground,
Coming to rest with barely a sound
Like a leaf falling from a tree.
Don’t let me die cartwheeling across the plain,
Wings snapping, cameras shattering,
Pieces of me scattering like shrapnel
Across the ice. Let me end my mayfly life
In peace, whole, not as debris rolling uncontrollably
Into Deir el-Medina…
It’s time to go, I know.
Only hours remain until I join Philae
And my great adventure ends
So I’ll send this and say goodbye.
If I dream, I’ll dream of Earth
Turning beneath me, bathing me in
Fifty shades of blue…
In years to come I hope you’ll think of me
And smile, remembering how, for just a while,
We explored a wonderland of ice and dust
Together, hand in hand.