Dramatic Outburst at Rosetta’s Comet Just Days Before Perihelion

A comet on a comet? That’s what it looks like, but you’re witnessing the most dramatic outburst ever recorded at 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the Rosetta spacecraft. The brilliant plume of gas and dust erupted on July 29 just two weeks before perihelion.

In a remarkable display of how quickly conditions on a comet can change, the outburst lasted only about 18 minutes, but its effects reverberated for days.

A short-lived outburst from Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko was captured by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 29 July 2015. The image at left was taken at 13:06 GMT and does not show any visible signs of the jet. It is very strong in the middle image captured at 13:24 GMT. Residual traces of activity are only very faintly visible in the final image taken at 13:42 GMT. The images were taken from a distance of 186 km from the centre of the comet.
In this sequence of images, the one at left was taken at 8:06 a.m. CDT and doesn’t show any visible signs of the jet. 18 minutes later at 8:24, it’s very bright and distinct (middle image) with only residual traces of activity remaining in the final photo made at 8:42.
The photos were taken from a distance of 116 miles (186 km) from the center of the comet. Copyright: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

In a sequence of images taken by Rosetta’s scientific camera OSIRIS, the brilliant, well-defined jet erupts from the side of the comet’s neck in the Anuket region. It was first seen in a photo taken at 8:24 a.m. CDT, but not in one taken 18 minutes earlier, and had faded significantly in an image captured 18 minutes later. The camera team estimates the material in the jet was traveling at a minimum of 22 mph (10 meters/sec), but possibly much faster.

It’s the brightest jet ever seen by Rosetta. Normally, the camera has to be set to overexpose 67P/C-G’s nucleus to reveal the typically faint, wispy jets. Not this one. You can truly appreciate its brilliance because a single exposure captures both nucleus and plume with equal detail.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko photographed from about 125 miles away on June 5 looks simply magnificent. Only two months from perihelion, the comet shows plenty of jets. One wonders what the chances are of one erupting underneath Philae and sending it back into orbit again. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
Jets are normally faint and require special processing or longer exposures to bring out in photos., overexposing the nucleus in the process. Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko photographed from about 125 miles away on June 5  Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

We all expected fireworks as the comet approached perihelion in its 6.5 year orbit around the Sun. Comets are brightest at and shortly after perihelion, when they literally “feel the heat”. Solar radiation vaporizes both exposed surface ices and ice locked beneath the comet’s coal-black crust. Vaporizing subsurface ice can created pressurized pockets of gas that seek a way out either through an existing vent or hole or by breaking through the porous crust and erupting geyser-like into space.

Jets carry along dust that helps create a comet’s fuzzy coma or temporary atmosphere, which are further modified into tails by the solar wind and the pressure of sunlight. When conditions and circumstances are right, these physical processes can build comets, the sight of which can fill the human heart with both terror and wonder.

The decrease in magnetic field strength measured by Rosetta’s RPC-MAG instrument during the outburst event on 29 July 2015. This is the first time a ‘diamagnetic cavity’ has been detected at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and is thought to be caused by an outburst of gas temporarily increasing the gas flux in the comet’s coma, and pushing the pressure-balance boundary between it and incoming solar wind farther from the nucleus than expected under ‘normal’ levels of activity. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/RPC/IGEP/IC
The decrease in magnetic field strength measured by Rosetta’s RPC-MAG instrument during the outburst event on July 29, 2015. This is the first time a ‘diamagnetic cavity’ has been detected at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and is thought to be caused by an outburst of gas temporarily increasing the gas flux in the comet’s coma, and pushing the pressure-balance boundary between it and incoming solar wind farther from the nucleus than expected under ‘normal’ levels of activity. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/RPC/IGEP/IC

This recent show of activity may be just the start of a round of outbursts at 67P/C-G. While perihelion occurs on this Thursday, a boost in a comet’s activity and brightness often occurs shortly after, similar to the way the hottest part of summer lags behind the date of summer solstice.

Rosetta found that the brief and powerful jet did more than make a spectacle — it also pushed away the solar wind’s magnetic field from around the nucleus as observed by the ship’s magnetometer. Normally, the Sun’s wind is slowed to a standstill when it encounters the gas cloud surrounding the nucleus.

“The solar wind magnetic field starts to pile up, like a traffic jam, and eventually stops moving towards the comet nucleus, creating a magnetic field-free region on the Sun-facing side of the comet called a ‘diamagnetic cavity’,” explained Charlotte Götz, magnetometer team member, on the ESA Rosetta website.

This photo of 67P/C-G's nucleus shows the context for the outburst. Copyright: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
The red circle shows the location of the July 29, 2015 outburst on 67P/C-G. Copyright: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Only once before at Halley’s Comet has a magnetically “empty” region like this been observed. But that comet was so much more active than 67P/C-G and up until July 29, Halley’s remained the sole example. But following the outburst on that day, the magnetometer detected a diamagnetic cavity extending out at least 116 miles (186 km) from the nucleus. This was likely created by the outburst of gas, forcing the solar wind to ‘stop’ further away from the comet and thus pushing the cavity boundary outwards beyond where Rosetta was flying at the time.

 

The graph shows the relative abundances of various gases after the outburst, compared with the measurements two days earlier. Copyright: ESA/Rosetta/ROSINA/UBern/ BIRA/LATMOS/LMM/IRAP/MPS/SwRI/TUB/UMich
Pew! The graph shows the relative abundances of various gases after the outburst, compared with the measurements two days earlier. Water remained the same, but CO2 and especially increased dramatically. Copyright: ESA/Rosetta/ROSINA/UBern/ BIRA/LATMOS/LMM/IRAP/MPS/SwRI/TUB/UMich

Soon afterward the outburst, the comet pressure sensor of ROSINA detected changes in the structure of the coma, while its mass spectrometer recorded changes in the composition of outpouring gases. Compared to measurements made two days earlier, carbon dioxide increased by a factor of two, methane by four, and hydrogen sulphide by seven, while the amount of water stayed almost constant. No question about it – with all that hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg smell), the comet stunk! Briefly anyway.

It was also more hazardous. In early July, Rosetta recorded and average of 1-3 dust hits a day, but 14 hours after the event, the number leapt to 30 with a peak of 70 hits in one 4-hour period on August 1. Average speeds picked up, too, increasing from 18 mph (8 m/s) to about 45 mph (20 m/s), with peaks at 67 mph (30 m/s). Ouch!

“It was quite a dust party!” said Alessandra Rotundi, principal investigator of GIADA (Grain Impact Analyzer and Dust Accumulator).

67P/C-G’s little party apparently wasn’t enough to jack up its brightness significantly as seen from Earth, but that doesn’t mean future outbursts won’t. We’ll be keeping an eye on any suspicious activity through perihelion and beyond and report back here.

Sources: 1, 2

Comet ISON Grows Wings; Comet Lovejoy, a Fountain

Wonderful photos of Comets ISON and Lovejoy with their swollen comas and developing tails  have appeared on these pages, but recently, amateur and professional astronomers have probed deeper to discover fascinating dust structures emanating from their very cores. Most comets possess a fuzzy, starlike pseudo-nucleus glowing near the center of the coma. Hidden within this minute luminous cocoon of haze and gas lies the true comet nucleus, a dark, icy body  that typically spans from a few to 10 kilometers wide. Comet ISON’s nucleus could be as large as several kilometers and hefty enough (we hope!) to survive its close call with the sun on Nov. 28.

Sketch using Photoshop of the inner region of Comet Lovejoy's coma showing the false nucleus and the curious dust fountain observed on Nov. 13 in a 15-inch (37-cm) telescope. Credit: Bob King. The dust fountain or plume captured on Nov. 12 next to the false nucleus deep within the coma of Comet Lovejoy. Credit: Luc Arnold
Sketch using Photoshop of the inner region of Comet Lovejoy’s coma showing the false nucleus and the curious dust fountain observed on Nov. 13 in a 15-inch (37-cm) telescope. Credit: Bob King. At right the same plume photographed on Nov. 12 with north up and east to the left. Credit: Luc Arnold

Last Wednesday morning Nov. 13 when calm air allowed a sharp view inside Comet Lovejoy’s large, 15-arc-minute-wide coma I noticed something odd about the false nucleus at low magnification, so I upped the power to 287x for a closer look. Extending from the fuzzy core in the sunward direction was a small cone or fountain-shaped structure of denser, brighter dust shaped like a miniature comet. It stretched eastward from the center and wrapped slightly to the south. Usually it’s harder than heck to see any details within the fuzzy, low-contrast environment of a comet’s coma unless that comet is close to Earth and actively spewing dust and ice. Lovejoy scored on both.

Negative image taken Nov. 14 of Lovejoy's nucleus and dust fan. Credit: Dr. P. Clay Sherrod
Negative image taken Nov. 14 of Lovejoy’s nucleus and dust fan. North up, west to the right. Credit: Dr. P. Clay Sherrod

By good fortune, Dr. P. Clay Sherrod of the Arkansas Sky Observatories, USA, and Luc Arnold of Saint-Michel-l’Observatoire, France, shared images they’d made at high magnification of the identical feature right at the same time as my own observation. There’s no doubt that what we saw was a jet or combined jets of dust and vapor blasting from Lovejoy’s true nucleus. Jets are linear or fan-shaped features and carry ice, dust and even snowballs from inside the nucleus out into space. They typically form where freshly-exposed ice from breaks or fissures in the comet’s crust vaporizes in the sun’s heat.

What I wouldn’t give to see one up close. Wait – we can. Take a look at the photo of Comet 103P/Hartley made during NASA’s EPOXI flyby mission in November 2010. Notice that most of Hartley’s crust appears intact with the jets being the main contributors to the dust and gas that form the coma and tail.

Multiple jets were actively spewing ice and dust when NASA's EPOXI mission zoomed by Comet Hartley 2  in November 2010. Credit: NASA
Multiple jets were actively spewing ice and dust when NASA’s EPOXI mission zoomed by Comet Hartley 2 in November 2010. The fuzzy spots are balls of fluffy snowballs measuring between 1 inch and 1 foot across. Credit: NASA

Spotting a jet usually requires good seeing (low atmospheric turbulence) and high magnification. They’re low-contrast features but worth searching for in any bright comet. Jets often point toward the sun for good reason – the sunward side of the comet is where the heating is happening. Activity dies back as the comet rotates to face away from the sun during the night and early morning hours. By studying the material streaming away from a comet via jets, astronomers can determine the rotation period of the nucleus.

Nightly images of Comet Hale-Bopp made March 24-30, 1997 by Brad D. Wallis of the Cassini imaging team at JPL. The photos were assembled into this animation by Sky & Telescope
Nightly images of Comet Hale-Bopp’s rotating nucleus and spiraling jet made March 24-30, 1997 by Brad D. Wallis of JPL. The photos were assembled into this animation by Sky & Telescope

Sometimes material sprayed by jets expands into a curved parabolic hood within the coma. This may explain the wing-shaped structures poking out from Comet ISON’s coma seen in recent photos. Possibly the Nov. 13-14 outburst released a great deal of fresh dust that’s now being pushed back toward the tail by the ever-increasing pressure of sunlight as the comet approaches perihelion.

The inner coma of Comet Hale-Bopp developed a striking series of hoods in March 1997 when a dust jet spewed material night after night from the comet’s rotating nucleus. The animation captures garden sprinkler effect beautifully. Since the nucleus spun around every 11 hours 46 minutes, multiple spiraling waves passed through the coma in the sunward direction. To the delight of amateur astronomers at the time, they were plainly visible through the telescope.

Processed images showing a possible jet next to Comet ISON' nucleus as well as the new wing-like coma structures on Nov. 17, 2013.  The jet's position angle or PA is 150 degrees or southeast of the nucleus. Credit: Denis Buczynski and Nick James
Processed images showing a possible jet extending southeast (PA 150 degrees) of Comet ISON’s nucleus as well as the new wing-like hoods on Nov. 17, 2013.  Credit: Denis Buczynski and Nick James of the BAA

When examining a comet, I start at low magnification and note coma shape, compactness and color as well as tail form and length and details like the presence of streamers or knots. Then I crank up the power and carefully study the area around the nucleus. Surprises may await your careful gaze. If Comet ISON does break up, the first sign of it happening might be an elongation or stretching of the false nucleus. If it’s no longer a small, star-like disk or if you notice a fainter, second nucleus tailward of the main, the comet’s days may be numbered.

Symmetrical "wings" photographed branching from Comet ISON's coma on Nov. 15. At right, the photo has been specially processed to show the structure more clearly. Credit: Erik Bryssinck
Another view of the symmetrical “wings” photographed branching from Comet ISON’s coma on Nov. 15. At right, the photo has been specially processed to show the structure more clearly. Credit: Erik Bryssinck