Rosetta’s Comet hails from a cold, dark place. Using statistical analysis and scientific computing, astronomers at Western University in Canada have charted a path that most likely pinpoints comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s long-ago home in the far reaches of the Kuiper Belt, a vast region beyond Neptune home to icy asteroids and comets.
According to the new research, Rosetta’s Comet is relative newcomer to the inner parts of our Solar System, having only arrived about 10,000 years ago. Prior to that, it spent the last 4.5 billion years in cold storage in a rough-and-tumble region of the Kuiper Belt called the scattered disk.
In the Solar System’s youth, asteroids that strayed too close to Neptune were scattered by the encounter into the wild blue yonder of the disk. Their orbits still bear the scars of those long-ago encounters: they’re often highly-elongated (shaped like a cigar) and tilted willy-nilly from the ecliptic plane up to 40°. Because their orbits can take them hundreds of Earth-Sun distances into the deeps of space, scattered disk objects are among the coldest places in the Solar System with surface temperatures around 50° above absolute zero. Ices that glommed together to form 67P at its birth are little changed today. Primordial stuff.
Watch how Rosetta’s Comet’s orbit has evolved since the comet’s formation
There are two basic comet groups. Most comets reside in the cavernous Oort Cloud, a roughly spherical-shaped region of space between 10,000 and 100,000 AU (astronomical unit = one Earth-Sun distance) from the Sun. The other major group, the Jupiter-family comets, owes its allegiance to the powerful gravity of the giant planet Jupiter. These comets race around the Sun with periods of less than 20 years. It’s thought they originate from collisions betwixt rocky-icy asteroids in the Kuiper Belt.
Fragments flung from the collisions are perturbed by Neptune into long, cigar-shaped orbits that bring them near Jupiter, which ropes them like calves with its insatiable gravity and re-settles them into short-period orbits.
Mattia Galiazzo and solar system expert Paul Wiegert, both at Western University, showed that in transit, Rosetta’s Comet likely spent millions of years in the scattered disk at about twice the distance of Neptune. The fact that it’s now a Jupiter family comet hints of a possible long-ago collision followed by gravitational interactions with Neptune and Jupiter before finally becoming an inner Solar System homebody going around the Sun every 6.45 years.
By such long paths do we arrive at our present circumstances.
Rosetta fell silent moments after 6:19 a.m. Eastern Time (12:19 UT) this morning, when it gently crashed into 67P/C-G 446 million miles (718 million km) from Earth. As the probe descended to the comet’s bouldery surface of the comet in free fall, it snapped a series of ever-more-detailed photographs while gathering the last bits data on the density and composition of cometary gases, surface temperature and gravity field before the final curtain was drawn.
Rosetta awoke from a decade of deep-space hibernation in January 2014 and immediately got to work photographing, measuring and sampling comet 67P/C-G. On September 30 it will sleep again but this time for eternity. Mission controllers will direct the probe to impact the comet’s dusty-icy nucleus within 20 minutes of 10:40 Greenwich Time (6:40 a.m. EDT) that Friday morning. The high-resolution OSIRIS camera will be snapping pictures on the way down, but once impact occurs, it’s game over, lights out. Rosetta will power down and go silent.
Nearly three years have passed since Rosetta opened its eyes on 67P, this curious, bi-lobed rubber duck of a comet just 2.5 miles (4 km) across with landscapes ranging from dust dunes to craggy peaks to enigmatic ‘goosebumps’. The mission was the first to orbit a comet and dispatch a probe, Philae, to its surface. I think it’s safe to say we learned more about what makes comets tick during Rosetta’s sojourn than in any previous mission.
So why end it? One of the big reasons is power. As Rosetta races farther and farther from the Sun, less sunlight falls on its pair of 16-meter-long solar arrays. At mid-month, the probe was over 348 million miles (560 million km) from the Sun and 433 million miles (697 million km) from Earth or nearly as far as Jupiter. With Sun-to-Rosetta mileage increasing nearly 620,000 miles (1 million km) a day, weakening sunlight can’t provide the power needed to keep the instruments running.
Rosetta’s last orbits around the comet
Rosetta’s also showing signs of age after having been in the harsh environment of interplanetary space for more than 12 years, two of them next door to a dust-spitting comet. Both factors contributed to the decision to end the mission rather than put the probe back into an even longer hibernation until the comet’s next perihelion many years away.
Since August 9, Rosetta has been swinging past the comet in a series of ever-tightening loops, providing excellent opportunities for close-up science observations. On September 5, Rosetta swooped within 1.2 miles (1.9 km) of 67P/C-G’s surface. It was hoped the spacecraft would descend as low as a kilometer during one of the later orbits as scientists worked to glean as much as possible before the show ends.
The final of 15 close flyovers will be completed today (Sept. 24) after which Rosetta will be maneuvered from its current elliptical orbit onto a trajectory that will eventually take it down to the comet’s surface on Sept. 30.
The beginning of the end unfolds on the evening of the 29th when Rosetta spends 14 hours free-falling slowly towards the comet from an altitude of 12.4 miles (20 km) — about 4 miles higher than a typical commercial jet — all the while collecting measurements and photos that will be returned to Earth before impact. The last eye-popping images will be taken from a distance of just tens to a hundred meters away.
The landing will be a soft one, with the spacecraft touching down at walking speed. Like Philae before it, it will probably bounce around before settling into place. Mission control expects parts of the probe to break upon impact.
Taking into account the additional 40 minute signal travel time between Rosetta and Earth on the 30th, confirmation of impact is expected at ESA’s mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, within 20 minutes of 11:20 GMT (7:20 a.m. EDT). The times will be updated as the trajectory is refined. You can watch live coverage of Rosetta’s final hours on ESA TV.
ESAHangout: Preparing for Rosetta’s grand finale
“It’s hard to believe that Rosetta’s incredible 12.5 year odyssey is almost over, and we’re planning the final set of science operations, but we are certainly looking forward to focusing on analyzing the reams of data for many decades to come,” said Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.
Plans call for the spacecraft to impact the comet somewhere within an ellipse about 1,300 x 2,000 feet (600 x 400 meters) long on 67P’s smaller lobe in the region known as Ma’at. It’s home to several active pits more than 328 feet (100 meters) in diameter and 160-200 feet (50-60 meters) deep, where a number of the comet’s dust jets originate. The walls of the pits are lined with fascinating meter-sized lumpy structures called ‘goosebumps’, which scientists believe could be early ‘cometesimals’, the icy snowballs that stuck together to create the comet in the early days of our Solar System’s formation.
During free-fall, the spacecraft will target a point adjacent to a 425-foot (130 m) wide, well-defined pit that the mission team has informally named Deir el-Medina, after a structure with a similar appearance in an ancient Egyptian town of the same name. High resolution images should give us a spectacular view of these enigmatic bumps.
While we hate to see Rosetta’s mission end, it’s been a blast going for a 2-year-plus comet ride-along.
Breaking up isn’t hard to do if you’re a comet. They’re fragile creatures subject to splitting, cracking and vaporizing when heated by the Sun and yanked on by its powerful gravitational pull.
Recently, the Hubble Space Telescope captured one of the sharpest, most detailed observations of a comet breaking apart, which occurred 67 million miles from Earth. In a series of images taken over a three-day span in January 2016, Hubble revealed 25 building-size blocks made of a mixture of ice and dust that are drifting away from the main nucleus of the periodic comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami at a leisurely pace, about the walking speed of an adult.
The observations suggest that the comet may be spinning so fast that material is ejected from its surface. The resulting debris is now scattered along a 3,000-mile-long trail, larger than the width of the continental U.S. Much the same happens with small asteroids, when sunlight absorbed unequally across an asteroid’s surface spins up its rotation rate, either causing it to fall apart or fling hunks of itself into space.
Being made of loosely bound frothy ice, comets may be even more volatile compared to the dense rocky composition of many asteroids. The research team suggests that sunlight heated up the comet, causing jets of gas and dust to erupt from its surface. We see this all the time in comets in dramatic images taken by the Rosetta spacecraft of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Because the nucleus is so small, these jets act like rocket engines, spinning up the comet’s rotation. The faster spin rate loosened chunks of material, which are drifting off into space.
“We know that comets sometimes disintegrate, but we don’t know much about why or how they come apart,” explained lead researcher David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles. “The trouble is that it happens quickly and without warning, and so we don’t have much chance to get useful data. With Hubble’s fantastic resolution, not only do we see really tiny, faint bits of the comet, but we can watch them change from day to day. And that has allowed us to make the best measurements ever obtained on such an object.”
In the animation you can see the comet splinters brighten and fade as icy patches on their surfaces rotate in and out of sunlight. Their shapes even change! Being made of ice and crumbly as a peanut butter cookie, they continue to break apart to spawn a host of smaller cometary bits. The icy relics comprise about 4% of the parent comet and range in size from roughly 65 feet wide to 200 feet wide (20-60 meters). They are moving away from each other at a few miles per hour.
Comet 332P was slightly beyond the orbit of Mars when Hubble spotted the breakup. The surviving bright nucleus completes a rotation every 2-4 hours, about four times as fast as Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (a.k.a. “Rosetta’s Comet”). Standing on its surface you’d see the sun rise and set in about an hour, akin to how frequently astronauts aboard the International Space Station see sunsets and sunrises orbiting at over 17,000 mph.
Don’t jump for joy though. Since the comet’s just 1,600 feet (488 meters) across, its gravitational powers are too meek to allow visitors the freedom of hopping about lest they find themselves hovering helplessly in space above the icy nucleus.
Comet 332P was discovered in November 2010, after it surged in brightness and was spotted by two Japanese amateur astronomers, Kaoru Ikeya and Shigeki Murakami. Based on the Hubble data, the team calculated that the comet probably began shedding material between October and December 2015. From the rapid changes seen in the shards over the three days captured in the animation, they probably won’t be around for long.
Spectacular breakup of Comet 73P in 2006
More changes may be in the works. Hubble’s sharp vision also spied a chunk of material close to the comet, which may be the first salvo of another outburst. The remnant from still another flare-up, which may have occurred in 2012, is also visible. The fragment may be as large as Comet 332P, suggesting the comet split in two.
“In the past, astronomers thought that comets die when they are warmed by sunlight, causing their ices to simply vaporize away,” Jewitt said. “Either nothing would be left over or there would be a dead hulk of material where an active comet used to be. But it’s starting to look like fragmentation may be more important. In Comet 332P we may be seeing a comet fragmenting itself into oblivion.”
During its closest approach to the Sun on November 28, 2013, Comet ISON’s nucleus broke apart and soon vaporized away, leaving little more than a ghostly head and fading tail.
Astronomers using the Hubble and other telescopes have seen breakups before, most notably in April 2006 when 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, which crumbled into more than 60 pieces. Unlike 332P, the comet wasn’t observed long enough to track the evolution of the fragments, but the images are spectacular!
The researchers estimate that Comet 332P contains enough mass to endure another 25 outbursts. “If the comet has an episode every six years, the equivalent of one orbit around the sun, then it will be gone in 150 years,” Jewitt said. “It’s the blink of an eye, astronomically speaking. The trip to the inner Solar System has doomed it.”
332P/Ikeya-Murakami hails from the Kuiper Belt, a vast swarm of icy asteroids and comets beyond Neptune. Leftover building blocks from early Solar System and stuck in a deep freeze in the Kuiper Belt, you’d think they’d be left alone to live their solitary, chilly lives but no. After nearly 4.5 billion years in this icy deep freeze, chaotic gravitational perturbations from Neptune kicked Comet 332P out of the Kuiper Belt.
As the comet traveled across the solar system, it was deflected by the planets, like a ball bouncing around in a pinball machine, until Jupiter’s gravity set its current orbit. Jewitt estimates that a comet from the Kuiper Belt gets tossed into the inner solar system every 40 to 100 years.
I wish I could tell you to grab your scope for a look, but 332P is currently fainter than 15th magnitude and located in Libra low in the southwestern sky at nightfall. Hopefully, we’ll see more images in the coming weeks and months as Jewitt and the team continue to follow the evolution of its icy scraps.
Remember 252P/LINEAR? This comet appeared low in the morning sky last month and for a short time grew bright enough to see with the naked eye from a dark site. 252P swept closest to Earth on March 21, passing just 3.3 million miles away or about 14 times the distance between our planet and the moon. Since then, it’s been gradually pulling away and fading though it remains bright enough to see in small telescope during late evening hours.
While amateurs set their clocks to catch the comet before dawn, astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured close-up photos of it two weeks after closest approach. The images reveal a narrow, well-defined jet of dust ejected by the comet’s fragile, icy nucleus spinning like a water jet from a rotating lawn sprinkler. These observations also represent the closest celestial object Hubble has observed other than the moon.
Sunlight warms a comet’s nucleus, vaporizing ices below the surface. In a confined space, the pressure of the vapor builds and builds until it finds a crack or weakness in the comet’s crust and blasts into space like water from a whale’s blowhole. Dust and other gases go along for the ride. Some of the dust drifts back down to coat the surface, some into space to be shaped by the pressure of sunlight into a dust tail.
You can still see 252P/LINEAR if you have a 4-inch or larger telescope. Right now it’s a little brighter than magnitude +9 as it slowly arcs along the border of Ophiuchus and Hercules. With the moon getting brighter and brighter as it fills toward full, tonight and tomorrow night will be best for viewing the comet. After that you’re best to wait till after the May 21st full moon when darkness returns to the evening sky. 252P will spend much of the next couple weeks near the 3rd magnitude star Kappa Ophiuchi, a convenient guidepost for aiming your telescope in the comet’s direction.
While you probably won’t see any jets in amateur telescopes, they’re there all the same and helped created this comet’s distinctive and large, fuzzy coma. Happy hunting!
Itching to watch a meteor shower and don’t mind getting up at an early hour? Good because this should be a great year for the annual Eta Aquarid (AY-tuh ah-QWAR-ids) shower which peaks on Thursday and Friday mornings May 5-6. While the shower is best viewed from tropical and southern latitudes, where a single observer might see between 25-40 meteors an hour, northern views won’t be too shabby. Expect to see between 10-15 per hour in the hours before dawn.
Most showers trace their parentage to a particular comet. The Perseids of August originate from dust strewn along the orbit of comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which drops by the inner solar system every 133 years after “wintering” for decades just beyond the orbit of Pluto.
The upcoming Eta Aquarids have the best known and arguably most famous parent of all: Halley’s Comet. Twice each year, Earth’s orbital path intersects dust and minute rock particles strewn by Halley during its cyclic 76-year journey from just beyond Uranus to within the orbit of Venus.
Our first pass through Halley’s remains happens this week, the second in late October during the Orionid meteor shower. Like bugs hitting a windshield, the grains meet their demise when they smash into the atmosphere at 147,000 mph (237,000 km/hr) and fire up for a brief moment as meteors. Most comet grains are only crumb-sized and don’t have a chance of reaching the ground as meteorites. To date, not a single meteorite has ever been positively associated with a particular shower.
The farther south you live, the higher the shower radiant will appear in the sky and the more meteors you’ll spot. A low radiant means less sky where meteors might be seen. But it also means visits from “earthgrazers”. These are meteors that skim or graze the atmosphere at a shallow angle and take many seconds to cross the sky. Several years back, I saw a couple Eta Aquarid earthgrazers during a very active shower. One other plus this year — no moon to trouble the view, making for ideal conditions especially if you can observe from a dark sky.
From mid-northern latitudes the radiant or point in the sky from which the meteors will appear to originate is low in the southeast before dawn. At latitude 50° north the viewing window lasts about 1 1/2 hours before the light of dawn encroaches; at 40° north, it’s a little more than 2 hours. If you live in the southern U.S. you’ll have nearly 3 hours of viewing time with the radiant 35° high.
Grab a reclining chair, face east and kick back for an hour or so between 3 and 4:30 a.m. An added bonus this spring season will be hearing the first birdsong as the sky brightens toward the end of your viewing session. And don’t forget the sights above: a spectacular Milky Way arching across the southern sky and the planets of Mars and Saturn paired up in the southwestern sky.
Meteor shower members can appear in any part of the sky, but if you trace their paths in reverse, they’ll all point back to the radiant. Other random meteors you might see are called sporadics and not related to the Eta Aquarids. Meteor showers take on the name of the constellation from which they originate.
Aquarius is home to at least two showers. This one’s called the Eta Aquarids because it emanates from near the star Eta Aquarii. An unrelated shower, the Delta Aquarids, is active in July and early August. Don’t sweat it if weather doesn’t cooperate the next couple mornings. The shower will be active throughout the weekend, too.
On March 22, Comet P/2016 BA14 (Pan-STARRS) flew just 2.2 million miles (3.5 million kilometers) from Earth, making it the third closest comet ever recorded. The last time a comet appeared on our doorstep was in 1770, when Lexell’s Comet breezed by at about half that distance. Through a telescope, comet BA14 looked (and still looks) like a faint star, though time exposures reveal a short, weak tail. With an excellent map and large amateur telescope you might still find it making a bead across the Big Dipper and constellation Bootes tonight through the weekend.
Flyby Comet Imaged by Radar
While normal telescopes show few details, NASA’s Goldstone Solar System Radar in California’s Mojave Desert pinged P/2016 BA14 with radar over three nights during closest approach and created a series of crisp, detailed images from the returning echoes. They show a bigger comet than expected — about 3,000 feet (one kilometer) across — and resolve features as small as 26 feet (8 meters) across.
“The radar images show that the comet has an irregular shape: looks like a brick on one side and a pear on the other,” said Shantanu Naidu, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We can see quite a few signatures related to topographic features such as large flat regions, small concavities and ridges on the surface of the nucleus.”
I honestly thought we’d see a more irregular shape assuming that astronomers were correct in thinking that BA14 broke off from its parent 252P/LINEAR though it’s possible it happened so long ago that the “damage” has been repaired by vaporizing ice softening its contours.
Radar also shows that the comet is rotating on its axis once every 35 to 40 hours. While radar eyes focused on BA14, Vishnu Reddy, of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona, used the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii to examine the comet in infrared light. He discovered its dark surface reflects less than 3% of the sunlight that falls on it. The infrared data is expected to yield clues of the comet’s composition as well.
Comets are exceptionally dark objects often compared to the appearance of a fresh asphalt road or parking lot. They appear bright in photos because seen against the blackness of space, they’re still reflective enough to stand out. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, still the apple of the orbiter Rosetta’s eye, is similarly dark, reflecting about 4% of sunlight.
What makes comets so dark even though they composed primarily of ice? Astronomers believe a comet grows a dark ‘skin’ both from accumulated dust and irradiation of its pristine ices by cosmic rays. Cosmic rays loosen oxygen atoms from water ice, freeing them to combine with simple carbon molecules present on comets to form larger, more complex and darker compounds resembling tars and crude oil. Dust settles on a comet’s surface after it’s set free from ice that vaporizes in sunlight.
I live in Minnesota, where our annual State Fair features every kind of deep-fried food you can imagine: deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried fruit, deep-fried bacon and even deep-fried Smores. Just now, I can’t shake the thought that comets are just another deep-fried confection made of pristine, 4.5-billion-year-old ice toasted by eons of sunlight and cosmic bombardment.
ESA’s Philae lander, the first spacecraft to successfully soft-land on the surface of a comet and former piggyback partner to Rosetta, has not been in communication since July of 2015 and, with 67P now six months past perihelion and heading deeper out into the Solar System, it’s not likely it will ever be heard from again.
2015 looks like a fantastic year for the Geminids. With the Moon just 3 days past new and setting at the end of evening twilight, conditions couldn’t be more ideal. Provided the weather cooperates! But even there we get a break. With a maximum of 120 meteors per hour, the shower is expected to peak around 18:00 UT (1 p.m. EST, 10 a.m. PST) December 14th, making for two nights of approximately equal activity: Sunday night Dec. 13-14 and Monday night Dec. 14-15. Continue reading “Viewing Guide to the 2015 Geminid Meteor Shower”
Amateur astronomer Chris Schur of Arizona had only five minutes to observe and photograph Comet Catalina this morning before twilight got the better of the night. In that brief time, he secured two beautiful images and made a quick observation through his 80mm refractor. He writes:
“Very difficult observation on this one. (I observed) it visually with the 35mm Panoptic ocular. It was a round, slightly condensed object with no sign of the twin tails that show up in the images. After five minutes, we lost it visually as it was 2° degrees up in bright twilight. Images show it for a longer time and a beautiful emerald green head with two tails forming a Y shaped fan.”
Schur estimated the comet’s brightness at around magnitude +6. What appears to be the dust tail extends to the lower right (southeast) with a narrower ion tail pointing north. With its twin tails, I’m reminded of a soaring eagle or perhaps a turkey vulture rocking back and forth on its wings. While they scavenge for food, Catalina soaks up sunlight.
I also headed out before dawn for a look. After a failed attempt to spot the new visitor on Saturday, I headed down to the Lake Superior shoreline at 5:30 a.m. today and waited until the comet rose above the murk. Using 7×50 binoculars in a similar narrow observing window, I could barely detect it as a small, fuzzy spot 2.5° south of 4th magnitude Lambda Virginis at 5:50 a.m. 10 minutes after the start of astronomical twilight. The camera did better!
With the comet climbing about 1° per day, seeing conditions and viewing time will continue to improve. The key to seeing it is finding a location with an unobstructed view to the southeast — that’s why I chose the lake — and getting out while it’s still dark to allow time to identify the star field and be ready when the comet rises to greet your gaze.
Alan Hale, discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp,also tracked down Catalina this morning with an 8-inch (20-cm) reflector at 47x. He reported its magnitude at ~+6.1 with a 2-arc-minute, well-condensed coma and a faint wisp of tail to the southeast. In an e-mail this morning, Hale commented on the apparent odd angle of the dust tail:
“Since the comet is on the far side of the sun as seen from Earth, with the typical dust tail lagging behind, that would seem to create the somewhat strange direction. It (the tail) almost seems to be directed toward the Sun, but it’s a perspective effect.”
There were side benefits to getting up early today. Three bright planets lit up Leo’s tail and Virgo’s “Cup” and a magnificent display of zodiacal light rose from the lake to encompass not only the comet but all the planets as well.