T-Minus 12 Days to Perihelion, Rosetta’s Comet Up Close and in 3D

With just 12 days before Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko reaches perihelion, we get a look at recent images and results released by the European Space Agency from the Philae lander along with spectacular 3D photos from Rosetta’s high resolution camera. 

Slow animation of images taken by Philae’s Rosetta Lander Imaging System, ROLIS, trace the lander’s descent to the first landing site, Agilkia, on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on November 12, 2014. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR
Slow animation of images taken by Philae’s Rosetta Lander Imaging System, ROLIS, trace the lander’s descent to the first landing site, Agilkia, on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on November 12, 2014.
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR

Remarkably, some 80% of the first science sequence was completed in the 64 hours before Philae fell into hibernation. Although unintentional, the failed landing attempt led to the unexpected bonus of getting data from two collection sites — the planned touchdown at Agilkia and its current precarious location at Abydos.

After first touching down, Philae was able to use its gas-sniffing Ptolemy and COSAC instruments to determine the makeup of the comet’s atmosphere and surface materials. COSAC analyzed samples that entered tubes at the bottom of the lander and found ice-poor dust grains that were rich in organic compounds containing carbon and nitrogen. It found 16 in all including methyl isocyanate, acetone, propionaldehyde and acetamide that had never been seen in comets before.

While you and I may not be familiar with some of these organics, their complexity hints that even in the deep cold and radiation-saturated no man’s land of outer space, a rich assortment of organic materials can evolve. Colliding with Earth during its early history, comets may have delivered chemicals essential for the evolution of life.

This 3D image focuses on the largest boulder seen in the image captured 221 feet (67.4 m) above Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko looks best in a pair of red-blue 3D glasses. Many fractures, along with a tapered ‘tail’ of debris and excavated ‘moat’ around the 5 m-high boulder, are plain to see. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR
This 3D image focuses on the largest boulder seen in the image captured 221 feet (67.4 m) above Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko looks best in a pair of red-blue 3D glasses. Many fractures, along with a tapered ‘tail’ of debris and excavated ‘moat’ around the 5 m-high boulder, are plain to see. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR

Ptolemy sampled the atmosphere entering tubes at the top of the lander and identified water vapor, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, along with smaller amounts of carbon-bearing organic compounds, including formaldehyde. Some of these juicy organic delights have long been thought to have played a role in life’s origins. Formaldehyde reacts with other commonly available materials to form complex sugars like ribose which forms the backbone of RNA and is related to the sugar deoxyribose, the “D” in DNA.

ROLIS (Rosetta Lander Imaging System) images taken shortly before the first touchdown revealed a surface of 3-foot-wide (meter-size) irregular-shaped blocks and coarse “soil” or regolith covered in “pebbles” 4-20 inches (10–50 cm) across as well as a mix of smaller debris.

Philae used its thermal sensor to measure daily highs and lows on the comet (top graph). The bottom graph shows time vs. depth when Philae used its penetrator to hammer into the soil. Credit: Spacecraft graphic: ESA/ATG medialab; data from Spohn et al (2015)
Philae used its thermal sensor to measure daily highs and lows on the comet (top graph). The bottom graph shows time vs. depth when Philae used its penetrator to hammer into the soil. Credit: Spacecraft graphic: ESA/ATG medialab; data from Spohn et al (2015)

Agilkia’s regolith, the name given to the rocky soil of other planets, moons, comets and asteroids, is thought to extend to a depth of about 6 feet (2 meters) in places, but seems to be free from fine-grained dust deposits at the resolution of the images. The 16-foot-high boulder in the photo above has been heavily fractured by some type of erosional process, possibly a heating and cooling cycle that vaporized a portion of its ice. Dust from elsewhere on the comet has been transported to the boulder’s base. This appears to happen over much of 67P/C-G as jets shoot gas and dust into the coma, some of which then settles out across the comet’s surface.

Another suite of instruments called MUPUS used a penetrating “hammer” to reveal a thin layer of dust about an inch thick (~ 3 cm) overlying a much harder, compacted mixture of dust and ice at Abydos. The thermal sensor took the comet’s daily temperature which varies from a high around –229° F (–145ºC) to a nighttime low of about –292° F (–180ºC), in sync with the comet’s 12.4 hour day. The rate at which the temperature rises and falls also indicates a thin layer of dust rests atop a compacted dust-ice crust.

Based on the most recent calculations using CONSERT data and detailed comet shape models, Philae’s location has been revised to an area covering 69 x 112 feet (21 x 34 m). The best fit area is marked in red, a good fit is marked in yellow, with areas on the white strip corresponding to previous estimates now discounted. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CONSERT
Based on the most recent calculations using CONSERT data and detailed comet shape models, Philae’s location has been revised to an area covering 69 x 112 feet (21 x 34 m). The best fit area is marked in red, a good fit is marked in yellow, with areas on the white strip corresponding to previous estimates now discounted. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CONSERT

CONSERT, which passed radio waves through the nucleus between the lander and the orbiter, showed that the small lobe of the comet is a very loosely compacted mixture of dust and ice with a porosity of 75-85%, about that of lightly compacted snow. CONSERT was also used to help triangulate Philae’s location on the surface, nailing it down to an area just 69 x 112 feet ( 21 x 34 m) wide.

The orbit of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and its approximate location around perihelion, the closest the comet gets to the Sun. The positions of the planets are correct for August 13, 2015. Copyright: ESA
The orbit of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and its approximate location around perihelion, the closest the comet gets to the Sun. The positions of the planets are correct for August 13, 2015. The comet will pass closest to Earth in February 2016 at 135.6 million miles but will be brightest this month right around perihelion. Copyright: ESA

In fewer than two weeks, the comet will reach perihelion, its closest approach to the Sun at 116 million miles (186 million km), and the time when it will be most active. Rosetta will continue to monitor 67P C-G from a safe distance to lessen the chance an errant chunk of comet ice or dust might damage its instruments. Otherwise it’s business as usual. Activity will gradually decline after perihelion with Rosetta providing a ringside seat throughout. The best time for viewing the comet from Earth will be mid-month when the Moon is out of the morning sky. Watch for an article with maps and directions soon.

Comet 67P/C-G on July 20, 2015 taken from a distance of 106 miles (171 km) from the comet's center. Rosetta has been keeping a safe distance recently as 67P/C-G approaches perihelion. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
Comet 67P/C-G on July 20, 2015 taken from a distance of 106 miles (171 km) from the comet’s center. Rosetta has been keeping a safe distance recently as 67P/C-G approaches the August 13th perihelion. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

“With perihelion fast approaching, we are busy monitoring the comet’s activity from a safe distance and looking for any changes in the surface features, and we hope that Philae will be able to send us complementary reports from its location on the surface,” said Philae lander manager Stephan Ulamec.

OSIRIS narrow-angle camera image showing the smooth nature of the dust covering the Ash region and highlighting the contrast with the more brittle material exposed underneath in Seth. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
OSIRIS narrow-angle camera image showing the smooth nature of the dust covering the Ash region and highlighting the contrast with the more brittle material exposed underneath in Seth.
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

More about Philae’s findings can be found in the July 31 issue of Science. Before signing off, here are a few detailed, 3D images made with the high-resolution OSIRIS camera on Rosetta. Once you don a pair of red-blue glasses, click the photos for the high-res versions and get your mind blown.

OSIRIS narrow-angle camera mosaic of two images showing an oblique view of the Atum region and its contact with Apis, the flat region in the foreground. This region is rough and pitted, with very few boulders. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Mosaic of two images showing an oblique view of the Atum region and its contact with Apis, the flat region in the foreground. This region is rough and pitted, with very few boulders.
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Image highlighting an alcove structure at the Hathor-Anuket boundary on the comet’s small lobe. The layering seen in the alcove could be indicative of the internal structure of the comet. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Image highlighting an alcove structure at the Hathor-Anuket boundary on the comet’s small lobe. The layering seen in the alcove could be indicative of the internal structure of the comet.
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Imhotep region in 3D. Credit:
Imhotep region in 3D. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

 

 

Philae Lander Early Science Results: Ice, Organic Molecules and Half a Foot of Dust

An uncontrolled, chaotic landing.  Stuck in the shadow of a cliff without energy-giving sunlight.  Philae and team persevered.  With just 60 hours of battery power, the lander drilled, hammered and gathered science data on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko before going into hibernation. Here’s what we know. 

Despite appearances, the comet’s hard as ice. The team responsible for the MUPUS (Multi-Purpose Sensors for Surface and Sub-Surface Science) instrument hammered a probe as hard as they could into 67P’s skin but only dug in a few millimeters:

Close-up of the first touchdown site before Philae landed (left) and after clearly shows the impressions of its three footpads in the comet’s dusty soil. Times are CST. Philae’s 3.3 feet (1-m) across. Credit: ESA
Close-up of the first touchdown site before Philae landed (left) and after clearly shows the impressions of its three footpads in the comet’s dusty soil. At the final landing site, it’s believed that Times are CST. Philae’s 3.3 feet (1-m) across. Credit: ESA

“Although the power of the hammer was gradually increased, we were not able to go deep into the surface,” said Tilman Spohn from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research, who leads the research team. “If we compare the data with laboratory measurements, we think that the probe encountered a hard surface with strength comparable to that of solid ice,” he added. This shouldn’t be surprising, since ice is the main constituent of comets, but much of 67P/C-G appears blanketed in dust, leading some to believe the surface was softer and fluffier than what Philae found.

This finding was confirmed by the SESAME experiment (Surface Electrical, Seismic and Acoustic Monitoring Experiment) where the strength of the dust-covered ice directly under the lander was “surprisingly high” according to Klaus Seidensticker from the DLR Institute. Two other SESAME instruments measured low vaporization activity and a great deal of water ice under the lander.

As far as taking the comet’s temperature, the MUPUS thermal mapper worked during the descent and on all three touchdowns. At the final site, MUPUS recorded a temperature of –243°F (–153°C) near the floor of the lander’s balcony before the instrument was deployed. The sensors cooled by a further 10°C over a period of about a half hour:

The location of Philae's first touchdown on the surface of Comet 67P/C-G. Although covered in dust in many areas, Philae found strong evidence for firm ice beneath. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
The location of Philae’s first touchdown on the surface of Comet 67P/C-G. Although covered in dust in many areas, Philae found strong evidence for firm ice beneath the comet’s surface. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

“We think this is either due to radiative transfer of heat to the cold nearby wall seen in the CIVA images or because the probe had been pushed into a cold dust pile,” says Jörg Knollenberg, instrument scientist for MUPUS at DLR. After looking at both the temperature and hammer probe data, the Philae team’s preliminary take is that the upper layers of the comet’s surface are covered in dust 4-8 inches (10-20 cm), overlaying firm ice or ice and dust mixtures.

The ROLIS camera (ROsetta Lander Imaging System) took detailed photos during the first descent to the Agilkia landing site. Later, when Philae made its final touchdown, ROLIS snapped images of the surface at close range. These photos, which have yet to be published, were taken from a different point of view than the set of panorama photos already received from the CIVA camera system.

During Philae’s active time, Rosetta used the CONSERT (COmet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radio wave Transmission) instrument to beam a radio signal to the lander while they were on opposite sides of the comet’s nucleus. Philae then transmitted a second signal through the comet back to Rosetta. This was to be repeated 7,500 times for each orbit of Rosetta to build up a 3D image of 67P/C-G’s interior, an otherworldly “CAT scan” as it were.  These measurements were being made even as Philae lapsed into hibernation. Deeper down the ice becomes more porous as revealed by measurements made by the orbiter.

Rosetta’s Philae lander includes a carefully selected set of instruments and is being prepared for a November 11th dispatch to analyze a comet’s surface. Credit: ESA, Composite – T.Reyes
Rosetta’s Philae lander includes a carefully selected set of instruments to analyze a comet’s surface. Credit: ESA, Composite – T.Reyes

The last of the 10 instruments on board the Philae lander to be activated was the SD2 (Sampling, Drilling and Distribution subsystem), designed to provide soil samples for the COSAC and PTOLEMY instruments. Scientists are certain the drill was activated and that all the steps to move a sample to the appropriate oven for baking were performed, but the data right now show no actual delivery according to a tweet this morning from Eric Hand, reporter at Science Magazine. COSAC worked as planned however and was able to “sniff” the comet’s rarified atmosphere to detect the first organic molecules. Research is underway to determine if the compounds are simple ones like methanol and ammonia or more complex ones like the amino acids.

Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander manager, is confident that we’ll resume contact with Philae next spring when the Sun’s angle in the comet’s sky will have shifted to better illuminate the lander’s solar panels. The team managed to rotate the lander during the night of November 14-15, so that the largest solar panel is now aligned towards the Sun. One advantage of the shady site is that Philae isn’t as likely to overheat as 67P approaches the Sun en route to perihelion next year. Still, temperatures on the surface have to warm up before the battery can be recharged, and that won’t happen until next summer.

Let’s hang in there. This phoenix may rise from the cold dust again.

Sources: 1, 2