Solid Phosphorus has been Found in Comets. This Means They Contain All the Raw Elements for Life

Did comets deliver the elements essential for life on Earth? It’s looking more and more like they could have. At least one comet might have, anyway: 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

A new study using data from the ESA’s Rosetta mission shows that the comet contains the life-critical element phosphorous.

Continue reading “Solid Phosphorus has been Found in Comets. This Means They Contain All the Raw Elements for Life”

One of the Building Blocks of Life Can Form in the Harsh Environment of Deep Space Itself. No Star Required

In many ways, stars are the engines of creation. Their energy drives a whole host of processes necessary for life. Scientists thought that stellar radiation is needed to create compounds like the amino acid glycine, one of the building blocks of life.

But a new study has found that glycine detected in comets formed in deep interstellar space when there was no stellar energy.

Continue reading “One of the Building Blocks of Life Can Form in the Harsh Environment of Deep Space Itself. No Star Required”

Even Comets Can Have Auroras. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Does

The ESA’s Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko ended four years ago. On September 30th 2016 the spacecraft was directed into a controlled impact with the comet, putting an end to its 12.5 year mission. Scientists are still working with all its data and making new discoveries.

A new study based on Rosetta data shows that Comet 67P has its own aurora.

Continue reading “Even Comets Can Have Auroras. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Does”

Rosetta’s Philae Lander Was Alive on the Surface of 67P for 63 Hours, Trying to Communicate

In August 2014, the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft arrived at its destination, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, after a 10 year journey. Rosetta carried a small companion, the Philae Lander. On November 12th, Philae was sent to the surface of Comet 67P. Unfortunately, things didn’t go exactly as planned, and the lander’s mission lasted only 63 hours.

During that time, it gathered what data it could. But mission scientists weren’t certain of its precise location, meaning its data was difficult to interpret accurately. Only when scientists knew precisely where Philae was located on the comet, could they make best use of all of its data.

Continue reading “Rosetta’s Philae Lander Was Alive on the Surface of 67P for 63 Hours, Trying to Communicate”

Rosetta Saw the Building Blocks of Life on Comet 67P

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.

Continue reading “Rosetta Saw the Building Blocks of Life on Comet 67P”

Rosetta Saw Collapsing Cliffs and Other Changes on 67P During its Mission

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.

Continue reading “Rosetta Saw Collapsing Cliffs and Other Changes on 67P During its Mission”

Weekly Space Hangout: Jan 23, 2019: Marco Parigi, Asteroid/Comet Whisperer

Fraser Cain ( / @fcain)
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg ( / @MorganRehnberg &

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: 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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Rosetta Flew Through the Bow Shock of Comet 67P Several Times During its Mission

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 this time, Rosetta’s science team also directed the orbiter to look for signs of the comet’s bow shock – the boundary that forms around objects as a result of interaction with solar wind. Contrary to what they thought, a recent study has revealed that Rosetta managed to detect signs of a bow shock around the comet in its early stages. This constitutes the first time in history that the formation of a bow shock has been witnessed in our Solar System. Continue reading “Rosetta Flew Through the Bow Shock of Comet 67P Several Times During its Mission”

This was the Snowstorm Rosetta Saw When it Got 79 km Away From Comet 67P

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.

Image of the dust and particles the Rosetta mission was exposed to as it flew alongside Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

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.

Artist’s impression of the Rosetta probe signalling Earth. Credits: ESA-C.Carreau

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.

As Patrick Martin, the ESA’s Rosetta mission manager, said during the second event:

“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.

Another snapshot of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko’s dusty emissions, taken on Jan. 21st, 2016. Credit: ESA

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!

Further Reading: ESA

Rosetta Team Finds New, Final Image Hiding in the Data

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.

The new image shows a close-up shot of the rocky, pebbly surface of the comet, and looks somewhat reminiscent of the views the Huygens lander took of the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan.

A final image from Rosetta, shortly before it made a controlled impact onto Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 30 September 2016. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA.

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.

A montage of the last few images from Rosetta, including the new image, with context of where the features on the last images are located. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

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?

Read more details about this image at ESA’s website.

Read our article about Rosetta’s mission end here.