Astronomers Think They Know Where Rosetta’s Comet Came From

In the distant past, the orbit of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko extended far beyond Neptune into the refrigerated Kuiper Belt. Interactions with the gravitational giant Jupiter altered the comet's orbit over time, dragging it into the inner Solar System. Credit: Western University, Canada
In the distant past, the orbit of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko extended far beyond Neptune into the refrigerated Kuiper Belt. Interactions with the gravitational giant Jupiter altered the comet’s orbit over time, dragging it into the inner Solar System. Credit: Western University, Canada

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.

The Kuiper Belt was named in honor of Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who postulated a reservoir of icy bodies beyond Neptune. The first Kuiper Belt object was discovered in 1992. We now know of more than a thousand objects there, and it's estimated it's home to more than 100,000 asteroids and comets there over 62 miles (100 km) across. Credit: JHUAPL
The Kuiper Belt was named in honor of Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who postulated a reservoir of icy bodies beyond Neptune. The first Kuiper Belt object was discovered in 1992. We now know of more than a thousand objects there, and it’s estimated it’s home to more than 100,000 asteroids and comets there over 62 miles (100 km) across. Credit: JHUAPL

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.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a Jupiter-family comet. Its 6.5 year journey around the Sun takes it from just beyond the orbit of Jupiter at its most distant, to between the orbits of Earth and Mars at its closest. Credit: ESA with labels by the author
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a Jupiter-family comet. Its 6.5 year journey around the Sun takes it from just beyond the orbit of Jupiter at its most distant to between the orbits of Earth and Mars at its closest. Credit: ESA with labels by the author

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 Wows With Amazing Closeups of Comet 67P Before Final ‘Crunchdown’

Landscape on Comet 67P taken from just 10 miles (16 km) up late Thursday evening during Rosetta's free fall . The image measures 2,014 feet (614 meters) across or just under a half-mile. At typical walking speed, you could walk from one end to the other in 10 minutes. Credit: ESA/Rosetta
Craggy hills meet dust-covered plains in this landscape on Comet 67P taken from 10 miles (16 km) up late Thursday evening during Rosetta’s free fall . The image measures 2,014 feet (614 meters) across or just under a half-mile. At typical walking speed, you could walk from one side to the other in 10 minutes. This and all the photos below are copyright ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

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.

Let’s take the trip down, shall we?

Rosetta's last navigation camera image was taken just after the collision maneuver sequence Thursday evening (CDT) when the probe was 9.56 miles (15.4 km) above the comet's surface. Credit: ESA/Rosetta
Rosetta’s last navigation camera image was taken just after the collision maneuver sequence Thursday evening (CDT) when the probe was 9.56 miles (15.4 km) above the comet’s surface. As in the photo above, much of the landscape is coated in a thick layer of dust that smoothes the comet’s contours.
As Rosetta continues its descent onto the Ma'at region on the small lobe of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera captured this image at 08:18 GMT from an altitude of about 5.8 km. The image shows dust-covered terrains, exposed walls and a few boulders on Ma'at, not far from the target impact region (not visible in this view - located below the lower edge).Copyright ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
As Rosetta continued its descent onto the Ma’at region on the small lobe of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera captured this photo from 3.6 miles (5.8 km) up. We see dust-covered terrains, exposed walls and a few boulders on Ma’at, not far from the target impact region, which is located just below the lower edge. The image measures 738 feet (225 meters) across.
Comet from 5.7 km. Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera captured this image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at 08:21 GMT during the spacecraft’s final descent on September 30, 2016. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Just a little bit lower now. This photo showing dramatic shadows was taken from 3.5 miles (5.7 km) above the surface of the comet at 4:21 a.m. EDT Friday morning September 30.
It looks like the probe's headed for the abyss! This photo was made at 6:14 a.m. just minutes before impact from 3/4 mile (1.2 km) high. The scene measures just 33 meters across.
Headed for the abyss? This photo was made at 6:14 a.m. from 3/4 mile (1.2 km) high just a few minutes before impact. The scene measures just 108 feet (33 meters) wide.
This is Rosetta's last image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken shortly before impact, an estimated 51 m above the surface.
This is Rosetta’s final image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken shortly before impact, an estimated 66 feet (~20 meters) above the surface. The view is similar to looking down from atop a three-story building. Side to side, the photo depicts an area only 7.8 feet (2.4 meters) across. The image is soft because Rosetta’s cameras weren’t designed to photograph the comet from this close.
Sad to see its signal fade. Going... going... gone! A sequence of screenshots showing the signal from Rosetta seen at ESA's ESOC mission control centre via NASA's 70m tracking station at Madrid during comet landing on 30 September 2016. The peak of the spectrum analyser is strong at 12:19 CEST, and a few moments later, it's gone. Credit: ESA
Sad to see its signal fade. A sequence of screenshots taken at ESA’s ESOC mission control show the signal from Rosetta fading moments before impact. The peak of the spectrum analyser is strong at 6:19 EDT, and a few moments later, it’s gone. At impact, Rosetta’s was shut down and no further communication will or can be made with the spacecraft. It will continue to rest on the comet for well-nigh eternity until 67P vaporizes and crumbles apart. Credit: ESA

Bye, Bye Rosetta — We’ll Miss You!

Activity increases substantially at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko between Jan. 31 and March 25, 2015, when this series of pictures was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft. Credit: NAVCAM_CC-BY_SA-IGO-3.0
This montage of photos of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft between Jan. 31 and March 25, 2015 and shows increasing activity as the comet approached perihelion. Credit: NAVCAM /CC-BY-SA-IGO-3.0

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.

A simplified overview of Rosetta’s last week of manoeuvres at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (comet rotation is not considered). After 24 September the spacecraft will leave the flyover orbits and transfer towards an initial point of a 16 x 23 km orbit that will be used to prepare for the final descent. The collision course manoeuvre will take place in the evening of 29 September, initiating the descent from an altitude of about 20 km. The impact is expected to occur at 10:40 GMT (±20 minutes) at the comet, which taking into account the 40 minute signal travel time between Rosetta and Earth on 30 September, means the confirmation would be expected at mission control at 11:20 GMT / 13:20 CEST (±20 minutes).
A simplified overview of Rosetta’s last week of maneuvers at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Starting today (Sept. 24) the spacecraft will leave the flyover orbits and transfer towards a 16 x 23 km orbit that will be used to prepare for the final descent. The collision course maneuver will take place in the evening Sept. 29 with impact expected to occur at 10:40 GMT (6:40 a.m. EDT), which taking into account the 40 minute signal travel time between Rosetta and Earth on Sept. 30, means the confirmation would be expected at mission control at 11:20 GMT (7:20 a.m. EDT). Copyright: ESA

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.

Rosetta will land somewhere within this planned impact ellipse in the Ma'at region on the comet's smaller lobe. Copyright: ESA
Rosetta is targeted to land at the site within this planned impact ellipse in the Ma’at region on the comet’s smaller lobe. See below for a closer view. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

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.

The spacecraft will aim at a point just right of the image centre, next to Deir el-Medina, the large pit located slightly below and to the right of centre in this view. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
The spacecraft landing site is shown in red and located next to Deir el-Medina, a large pit (arrowed). Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

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.

Close-up of a curious surface texture nicknamed ‘goosebumps’. The characteristic scale of all the bumps seen on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko by the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera is approximately 3 m, extending over regions greater than 100 m. They are seen on very steep slopes and on exposed cliff faces, but their formation mechanism is yet to be explained. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Close-up of a curious surface texture nicknamed ‘goosebumps’. The bumps are about 9 feet (3 meters) across and seen on very steep slopes and exposed cliff faces. They may represent the original balls of icy dust that glommed together to form comets 4.5 billion years ago. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

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.

Hubble Captures The Sharpest Image Of A Disintegrating Comet Ever

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image reveals the ancient Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami disintegrating as it approaches the sun. The observations represent one of the sharpest views of an icy comet breaking apart. The comet debris consists of a cluster of building-size chunks near the center of the image. They form a 3,000-mile-long trail, larger than the width of the continental U.S. The fragments are drifting away from the comet at a leisurely pace, roughly the walking speed of an adult. The main nucleus of Comet 332P is the bright object at lower left. It measures 1,600 feet across, about the length of five football fields. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)
This Hubble Space Telescope image reveals the ancient Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami disintegrating as it approaches the sun. The comet debris consists of a cluster of building-size chunks near the center of the image. They form a trail larger than the width of the continental U.S. The fragments are drifting away from the comet at a leisurely pace of just a few miles an hour. The main nucleus of Comet 332P is the bright object at lower left. It measures 1,600 feet across, about the length of five football fields. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

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.

332P on UT 2016 January 26, 27 and 28, showing fragments measured in this work. The images are displayed consecutively as an animated gif in order to show the motion of the fragments relative to the parent nucleus (visible as the bright object to the lower left). The actual motions are very slow, of order 1 m/s, and show a fan-like divergence from the parent. Notice that some of the fragments also change in brightness and even shape from day to day. We think this is due to continuing outgassing, rotation and breakup of the fragments.
This animation shows the movement of individual comet fragments relative to the parent nucleus, the bright object at lower left, on January 26, 27 and 28 UT. The true motions are very slow, on the order of several miles an hour, and show a fan-like divergence from the parent. Look closely and you’ll see that some of the fragments change in brightness and even shape from day to day. Researcher David Jewitt thinks this is due to continuing outgassing, rotation and breakup of the fragments. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

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.

Comet 168P-Hergenrother was imaged by the Gemini telescope on Nov. 2, 2012 at about 6 a.m. UTC. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini
Comet 168P/Hergenrother was photographed by the Gemini telescope on Nov. 2, 2012 and shows three fragments that broke away from the nucleus streaming from the coma down the tail. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini

“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.

Crack on 67P - a sign of a coming breakup?
The European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe photographed this big crack in the neck region of the double-lobed comer 67P. It’s several feet wide and about 700 feet long. Could it be an indicator that the comet will break into two in the future? Credit: ESA/Rosetta

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.

This illustration shows one possible explanation for the disintegration of asteroid P/2013 R3. It is likely that over the past 4.5 billion years the asteroid was fractured by collisions with other asteroids. The effects of sunlight will have caused the asteroid to slowly increase its rotation rate until the loosely bound fragments drifted apart due to centrifugal forces. Dust drifting off the pieces makes the comet-looking tails. This process may be common for small bodies in the asteroid belt.
This illustration shows one possible explanation for the disintegration of asteroids and comets. The effects of sunlight can cause an asteroid to slowly increase its rotation rate until the loosely bound fragments drift apart due to centrifugal forces. In the case of comets, jets of vaporizing ice have a rocket-like effect that can spin up a nucleus to speeds fast enough for the comet to eject pieces of itself. Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA), and A. Feild (STScI)

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 on UT 2016 January 26, 27 and 28, showing fragments measured in this work. The images are displayed consecutively as an animated gif in order to show the motion of the fragments relative to the parent nucleus (visible as the bright object to the lower left). The actual motions are very slow, of order 1 m/s, and show a fan-like divergence from the parent. Notice that some of the fragments also change in brightness and even shape from day to day. We think this is due to continuing outgassing, rotation and breakup of the fragments.NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)
This annotated image shows the fragments measured by Jewitt and team and their direction of movement. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

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.

Rock Around the Comet Clock with Hubble

These photos, taken on April 4, 2016 over the span of 4 1/2 hours, reveal a narrow, well-defined jet of dust ejected by the comet's icy nucleus. With a diameter of only about a mile, the nucleus is too small for Hubble to see. The jet is illuminated by sunlight and changes direction like the hour hand on a clock as the comet spins on its axis. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)
These photos, taken on April 4, 2016 over the span of 4 1/2 hours, reveal a narrow, well-defined jet of dust ejected by the comet’s icy nucleus. With a diameter of only about a mile, the nucleus is too small for Hubble to see. The jet is illuminated by sunlight and changes direction like the hour hand on a clock as the comet spins on its axis. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)

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.

252P LINEAR looks like a big fuzzy ball in this photo taken on April 30. The comet is located in Ophiuchus and rises in the eastern sky at nightfall. At this scale, the jet shown in the Hubble photos is too tiny to see. See map below to find the comet yourself. Credit: Rolando Ligustri
252P LINEAR looks like a big fuzzy ball in this photo taken on April 30. The comet is located in Ophiuchus and rises in the eastern sky at nightfall. At this scale, the jet shown in the Hubble photos is too tiny to see. See map below to find the comet yourself. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

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.

Want to get a good look at a comet's tiny nucleus and its jets of vapor and dust? Get up close in the spaceship. This photo was taken by the European Space Agency's Rosetta probe which has been orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko since the fall of 2014. Credit: ESA
Want to get a good look at a comet’s tiny nucleus and its jets of vapor and dust? Get up close in the spaceship. This photo was taken by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe which has been orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko since the fall of 2014. Credit: ESA

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.

This map shows the path -- marked off every five nights -- of 252P/LINEAR along the border of Ophiuchus and Hercules through the end of June. Bright stars are labeled by Greek letter or number. Stars shown to magnitude 8.5. Diagram: Bob King, source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap
This map shows the path — marked off every five nights at 11:30 p.m. CDT (4:30 UT) — of 252P/LINEAR along the border of Ophiuchus and Hercules through the end of June. Bright stars are labeled by Greek letter or number. Stars shown to magnitude 8.5. Click to enlarge. Diagram: Bob King, source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

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.

Orient yourself on the comet's location by using this map, which shows the sky facing southeast around 11-11:30 p.m. local daylight time in mid-May. Mars and Saturn are excellent guides to help you find Kappa Oph, located very near the comet. Diagram: Bob King , source: Stellarium
Get oriented on where to look for the comet by first using this map, which shows the sky facing southeast around 11-11:30 p.m. local daylight time in mid-May. Mars and Saturn make excellent guides to help you find Kappa Oph, located very near the comet. Diagram: Bob King , source: Stellarium

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!

The full sequence of images of the spinning jet in 252P/LINEAR seen by Hubble. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)
The full sequence of images of the spinning jet in 252P/LINEAR seen by Hubble. Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)

 

2016 Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower Peaks May 5-6

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks shortly before dawn on Friday and Saturday mornings. The radiant lies in Aquarius near the star Eta. Diagram: Bob King, source: Stellarium
The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks shortly before dawn on Thursday and Friday mornings. The radiant lies in Aquarius near the star Eta. Diagram: Bob King, source: Stellarium

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.

Photo of Haley's Comet crossing the Milky Way, taken by the Kuiper Airborne Observatory in New Zealand on April 8th/9th, 1986. Credit: NASA
Halley’s Comet crossing the Milky Way, taken by the Kuiper Airborne Observatory in New Zealand on April 8-9, 1986. Credit: NASA

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.

A bright, earthgrazer Eta Aquarids streaks across Perseus May 6, 2013. Because the radiant is low for northern hemisphere observers, earthgrazers - long, bright meteors that come up from near the horizon and have long-lasting trails. Credit: Bob King
A bright, earthgrazing Eta Aquarid streaks across Perseus and through the aurora on May 6, 2013. Because the radiant is low for northern hemisphere observers, earthgrazers – long, bright meteors that come up from near the horizon and have long-lasting trails. Credit: Bob King

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.

At some personal peril, I grabbed a photo of snow in the headlights while driving home in a recent storm. Meteors in a meteor shower appear to radiate from a point in the distance in identical fashion. Photo: Bob King
Meteors in a meteor shower appear to radiate from a point in the distance in identical fashion to the way snow or rain radiates from a point in front of your car when you’re driving. Credit: Bob King

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.

Happy viewing and clear skies!

See Historic Comet BA14 Up Close In These New Radar Images

These radar images of comet P/2016 BA14 were taken on March 23, 2016, by scientists using an antenna of NASA's Deep Space Network at Goldstone, California. At the time, the comet was about 2.2 million miles (3.5 million kilometers) from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR
These radar images of comet P/2016 BA14 were taken on March 23, 2016, by scientists using an antenna of NASA’s Deep Space Network at Goldstone, California. At the time, the comet was about 2.2 million miles (3.5 million kilometers) from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSSR

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.

Comets are as dark as charcoal but appear light only because the sun illuminates them against the blackness of outer space. I shone a flashlight on a charcoal briquette (left) to simulate comet lighting. The same charcoal when viewed in normal light appears black. Credit: Bob King
Comets are as dark as charcoal but appear light only because the sun illuminates them against the blackness of outer space. I shone a flashlight on a charcoal briquette (left) to simulate comet lighting. The same charcoal when viewed in normal light appears black. Credit: Bob King

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.

Illustration of Comet 67P/C-G brought down to Earth in the city of Los Angeles, Calif. Compare to the same image (below) as viewed in space. Credit: ESA and anosmicovni
Illustration of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko brought down to Earth in the city of Los Angeles, Calif. Not only can we appreciate its size but also its truly dark surface.  Credit: ESA and anosmicovni

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.

Comet 67P/C-G photographed from a distance of just 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) on March 19, 2016 by Rosetta's Navcam. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0.
What a view! Comet 67P/C-G photographed from a distance of just 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) on March 19, 2016 by Rosetta’s Navcam. The largest boulder to the right is Cheops, which stands about 82 feet (25 meters) high. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

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.

Rosetta’s Philae Lander in Permanent Sleep

NAVCAM image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko acquired on Nov. 22, 2015.
NAVCAM image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko acquired on Nov. 22, 2015. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0.

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.

Continue reading “Rosetta’s Philae Lander in Permanent Sleep”

Viewing Guide to the 2015 Geminid Meteor Shower

A brilliant Geminid flashes below Sirius and Orion over Mount Balang in China. Credit: NASA/Alvin Wu

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”

Comet Catalina Grows Two Tails, Soars at Dawn

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.” 

Comet Catalina was about 3 high over Lake Superior near Duluth, Minn. IU.S.) at 5:55 a.m. this morning. Stars are labeled with their magnitudes. Details: 200mm lens, f/2.8, ISO 1250, 3-seconds.
Comet Catalina stands some 3° high over Lake Superior near Duluth, Minn. (U.S.) at 5:55 a.m. this morning, Nov. 22. Stars are labeled with their magnitudes. Details: 200mm lens, f/2.8, ISO 1250, 3-seconds. Credit: Bob King

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!

Chris's first photo was taken when the comet rose. This one was photographed minutes later with twilight coming on. Credit: Chris Schur
Chris’s first photo was taken when the comet rose. This one was photographed minutes later with twilight coming on. Credit: Chris Schur

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.

Two views of Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina made around 6:23 a.m. EST (11:23 Universal Time) on Nov. 21st. The left photo is a 30-second exposure with dawn light approaching fast. Exposure at right was 10 seconds.
North is up and east to the left in these two photos of the comet made by Dr. D.T. Durig at 6:23 a.m. EST on Nov. 21st from Cordell-Lorenz Observatory in Sewanee, Tenn. He estimated the coma diameter at ~2 arc minutes with a tail at least 10 arc minutes long . “I get a nuclear magnitude of 10.3 and an total mag of around 7.8, but that is with only 5-10 reference stars,” wrote Durig. Credit: Dr. Douglas T. Durig

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.”

Venus glares inside the cone of the zodiacal light this morning at the start of astronomical twilight over the shoreline of northern Wisconsin. Jupiter is seen at top and Mars two-thirds of the way from Jupiter to Venus. Credit: Bob King
Venus glares inside the cone of the zodiacal light this morning at the start of astronomical twilight. Jupiter is seen at top and Mars two-thirds of the way from Jupiter to Venus. Arcturus shines at far left. Credit: Bob King

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.