Rosetta Images Show Comet’s Changing Surface Close Up

The Rosetta spacecraft learned a great deal during the two years that it spent monitoring Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – from August 6th, 2014 to September 30th, 2016. As the first spacecraft to orbit the nucleus of a comet, Rosetta was the first space probe to directly image the surface of a comet, and observed some fascinating things in the process.

For instance, the probe was able to document some remarkable changes that took place during the mission with its OSIRIS camera. According to a study published today (March. 21st) in Science, these included growing fractures, collapsing cliffs, rolling boulders and moving material on the comet’s surface that buried some features and exhumed others.

These changes were noticed by comparing images from before and after the comet reached perihelion on August 13th, 2015 – the closets point in its orbit around the Sun. Like all comets, it is during this point in 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s orbit that the surface experiences its highest levels of activity, since perihelion results in greater levels of surface heating, as well as increased tidal stresses.

Images taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera show changes in the surface between 2015 and 2016. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM (top center images); ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA (all others)

Basically, as comets gets closer to the Sun, they experience a combination of in-situ weathering and erosion, sublimation of water-ice, and mechanical stresses arising from an increased spin rate. These processes can be either unique and transient, or they can place over longer periods of time.

As Ramy El-Maarry, a scientist from the Max-Planck Institute for Solar System Research and the lead author of the study, said in an ESA press statement:

“Monitoring the comet continuously as it traversed the inner Solar System gave us an unprecedented insight not only into how comets change when they travel close to the Sun, but also how fast these changes take place.”

For instance, in-situ weathering occurs all over the comet and is the result of heating and cooling cycles that happen on both a daily and a seasonal basis. In the case of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s (6.44 Earth years), temperatures range from 180 K (-93 °C; -135 °F) to 230 K (-43 °C; -45 °F) during the course of its orbit. When the comet’s volatile ices warm, they cause consolidated material to weaken, which can cause fragmentation.

Combined with the heating of subsurface ices – which leads to outgassing – this process can result in the sudden collapse of cliff walls. As other photographic evidence that was recently released by the Rosetta science team can attest, this sort of process appears to have taken place in several locations across the comet’s surface.

Images showing a new fracture and boulder movement in Anuket. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/ID

Similarly, comets experience increased stress because their spin rates speed up as they gets closer to the Sun. This is believed to be what caused the 500 meter-long (1640 ft) fracture that has been observed in the Anuket region. Originally discovered in August of 2014, this fracture appeared to have grown by 30 meters (~100 ft) when it was observed again in December of 2014.

This same process is believed to be responsible for a new fracture that was identified from OSIRIS images taken in June 2016. This 150-300 meter-long (492 – 984 ft) fracture appears to have formed parallel to the original. In addition, photographs taken in February of 2015 and June of 2016 (shown above) revealed how a 4 meter-wide (13 ft) boulder that was sitting close to the fractures appeared to have moved by about 15 meters (49 ft).

Whether or not the two phenomena are related is unclear. But it is clear that something very similar appears to have taken place in the Khonsu region. In this section of the comet (which corresponds to one of its larger lobes), images taken between May of 2015 and June 2016 (shown below) revealed how a much larger boulder appeared to have moved even farther between the two time periods.

Images showing a moving boulder in the Khonsu region. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

This boulder – which measures some 30 meters (98 ft) across and weighs an estimated 12,800 metric tonnes (~14,100 US tons) – moved a distance of about 140 meters (~460 ft). In this case, outgassing during perihelion is believed to be the culprit. On the one hand, it could have caused the surface material to erode beneath it (thus causing it to roll downslope) or by forcibly pushing it.

For some time, it has been known that comets undergo changes during the course of their orbits. Thanks to the Rosetta mission, scientists have been able to see these processes in action for the first time. Much like all space probes, vital information continues to be discovered long after the Rosetta mission officially came to an end. Who knows what else the probe managed to witness during its historic mission, and which we will be privy to?

Further Reading: ESA

Glorious Global 3-D Mars from ISRO’s MOM and ESA’s Rosetta

Here’s another breathtakingly glorious view from India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) – her first global 3-D portrait of her new home careening around the Red Planet.

MOM is India’s first deep space voyager to explore beyond the confines of her home planet’s influence and just successfully arrived at the Red Planet after the “history creating” orbital insertion maneuver on Sept. 23/24 following a ten month journey.

This newly released 3-D view from MOM expands upon the initial 2-D global color view of Mars released by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), India’s space agency. See below and detailed in my earlier story – here.

The 3-D image was generated from multiple pictures acquired by MOM’s on-board Mars Color Camera on Sept 28, 2014, from the very high altitude of approximately 74,500 kilometers as the spacecraft orbits Mars.

ISRO's Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74500 km on Sept. 28, 2014.  Credit: ISRO
ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission captures spectacular portrait of the Red Planet and swirling dust storms with the on-board Mars Color Camera from an altitude of 74,500 km on Sept. 28, 2014. Credit: ISRO

The images were taken by the tri-color camera as MOM swooped around the Red Planet in a highly elliptical orbit whose nearest point to Mars (periapsis) is at 421.7 km and farthest point (apoapsis) at 76,993.6 km, according to ISRO.

Therefore, the 3-D Red Planet portrait was captured nearly at apoapsis. And being three dimensional, it gives a stereo sense of the huge dust storm swirling over a large swath of the planet’s Northern Hemisphere set against the blackness of space.

Below right is the southern polar ice cap. To see the 3-D effect, whip out your handy pair of left-eye red, right-eye blue color anaglyph glasses.

And while we’re on the subject of spacely 3-D, it’s worth noting that another of humanity’s ground breaking probes currently making news – ESA’s comet hunting Rosetta probe – likewise snapped a glorious 3-D view of Mars way back in 2007, during the brief, but critical, gravity assist slingshot maneuver that flung Rosetta along her vast 10 year path through interplanetary space.

So by way of comparison let’s take a trip down memory lane and be sure to look back at Rosetta’s global 3-D Martian views (below) taken by the high resolution OSIRIS camera on 24 February 2007 at 19:28 CET from a distance of about 240,000 kilometers.

Mars 3-D anaglyph (black & white) taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft during Mars flyby on 24 February 2007 from a distance of about 240 000 km.  Image resolution is about 5 km.  Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA
Mars 3-D anaglyph (black & white) taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft during Mars flyby on 24 February 2007 from a distance of about 240,000 km. Image resolution is about 5 km. Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA

The Rosetta team created both color and black & white 3-D views of Mars.

Mars 3-D anaglyph (color) taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft during Mars flyby on 24 February 2007 from a distance of about 240 000 km.  Image resolution is about 5 km.  Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA
Mars 3-D anaglyph (color) taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft during Mars flyby on 24 February 2007 from a distance of about 240,000 km. Image resolution is about 5 km. Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA

And be sure to check out Rosetta’s 2-D true color view showing a different swatch of the Red Planet compared to MOM, along with a more expansive view of the southern polar ice cap.

The first true-colour image of Mars from ESA’s Rosetta generated using the OSIRIS orange (red), green and blue colour filters. The image was acquired on 24 February 2007 at 19:28 CET from a distance of about 240 000 km; image resolution is about 5 km/pixel. Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA
The first true-color image of Mars from ESA’s Rosetta generated using the OSIRIS orange (red), green and blue color filters. The image was acquired on 24 February 2007 at 19:28 CET from a distance of about 240,000 km; image resolution is about 5 km/pixel. Credit: MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/ IAA/ RSSD/ INTA/ UPM/ DASP/ IDA

The $73 million MOM mission is expected to last at least six months.

MOM’s success follows closely on the heels of NASA’s MAVEN orbiter which also successfully achieved orbit barely two days earlier on Sept. 21 and could last 10 years or more.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Rosetta Captures Breathtaking Comet Views Advancing Landing Site Selection

The Rosetta spacecraft is capturing ever more breathtaking views of its target comet that are significantly advancing landing site selection for the history making touchdown on the bizarre worlds nucleus by the attached Philae lander.

Today ESA released the latest high resolution images of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by the OSIRIS science camera on Sept. 5, and is shown above.

Jagged cliffs and prominent boulders are clearly visible in unprecedented detail on the head and body of Comet 67P displaying a multitude of different terrains in the new image taken from a distance of 62 kilometers.

Meanwhile the Rosetta science team is using the OSIRIS and navcam camera images to create a preliminary map of the comets surface. The map is color coded to divide the comet into several distinct morphological regions.

Several morphologically different regions are indicated in this preliminary map, which is oriented with the comet’s ‘body’ in the foreground and the ‘head’ in the background.  Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Several morphologically different regions are indicated in this preliminary map, which is oriented with the comet’s ‘body’ in the foreground and the ‘head’ in the background.
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

“With various areas dominated by cliffs, depressions, craters, boulders or even parallel grooves, 67P/C-G displays a multitude of different terrains. Some areas even appear to have been shaped by the comet’s activity,” the Rosetta team said in the release.

The images were also shown at today’s scientific presentations at a special Rosetta research session at the 2014 European Planetary Science Congress being held in Cascais, Portugal.

The scientists are striving to meld all the imagery and data gathered from Rosetta’s 11 instruments in order to elucidate the composition and evolution of the different regions.

The mapping data is also being used to narrow the ‘Top 5’ Philae landing site candidates down to a primary and backup choice.

The final landing site selections will be made at a meeting being held this weekend on 13 and 14 September 2014 between the Rosetta Lander Team and the Rosetta orbiter team at CNES in Toulouse, France.

Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta's navigation camera on 2 September 2014 from a distance of 56 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been contrast enhanced to bring out details of the coma, especially of jets of dust emanating from the neck region. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 2 September 2014 from a distance of 56 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been contrast enhanced to bring out details of the coma, especially of jets of dust emanating from the neck region.
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Philae’s history making landing on comet 67P is currently scheduled for around Nov. 11, 2014, and will be entirely automatic. The 100 kg lander is equipped with 10 science instruments.

The three-legged lander will fire two harpoons and use ice screws to anchor itself to the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) wide comet’s surface. Philae will collect stereo and panoramic images and also drill 23 centimeters into and sample its incredibly varied surface.

Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta's navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been rotated and contrast enhanced to bring out details. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been rotated and contrast enhanced to bring out details. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

The comet nucleus is about 4 km (2.5 mi) across.

The team is in a race against time to select a suitable landing zone soon since the comet warms up and the surface becomes ever more active as it swings in closer to the sun and makes the landing ever more hazardous.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander.   The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Enlarged insets below highlight 5 landing zones.  Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA  Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander. The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Enlarged insets below highlight 5 landing zones. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Rosetta Now Up Close to Comet 67P – Snapping Mapping Mosaics for Momentous Philae Landing

Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been contrast enhanced to bring out details. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across.
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
See rotated version and 4 individual images below[/caption]

ESA’s Rosetta orbiter has now moved in so close to its comet quarry that the primordial body overwhelms the screen, and thus its snapping mapping mosaics to capture the complete scene of the bizarre world so it can find the most suitable spot for the momentous Philae landing – upcoming in mid-November.

In fact Rosetta has ‘drawn and quartered’ the comet to collect high resolution views of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko with the navcam camera on Sunday, August 31.

The navcam quartet has just been posted to the Rosetta portal today, Monday, September 1, 2014. ESA invited readers to create global photo mosaics.

See above our four frame photo mosaic of navcam images Rosetta took on Aug. 31.

The purpose of taking the images as well as spectra and physical measurements up close is to find a ‘technically feasible’ Philae touchdown site that is both safe and scientifically interesting.

Below is the Rosetta teams four image navcam montage, arranged individually in a 2 x 2 raster.

Four-image montage comprising images taken by Rosetta's navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
Four-image montage comprising images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

The navcam image raster sequence was taken from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P.

“Roughly one quarter of the comet is seen in the corner of each of the four images. The four images are taken over an approximately 20 minute period, meaning that there is some motion of the spacecraft and rotation of the comet between the images. As a result, making a clean mosaic out of the four images is not simple,” according to ESA’s Rosetta blog.

As I reported here last week, the ‘Top 5’ landing site candidates have been chosen for the Rosetta orbiters piggybacked Philae lander for humankind’s first attempt to land on a comet.

The potential touchdown sites were announced on Aug. 25, based on a thorough analysis of high resolution measurements collected by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft over the prior weeks since it arrived at the pockmarked Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Aug. 6, 2014.

See our montage of the ‘Top 5’ landing sites below.

Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander.   The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Enlarged insets below highlight 5 landing zones.  Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA  Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander. The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Enlarged insets below highlight 5 landing zones. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Rosetta is a mission of many firsts, including history’s first ever attempt to orbit a comet for long term study.

Philae’s history making landing on comet 67P is currently scheduled for around Nov. 11, 2014, and will be entirely automatic. The 100 kg lander is equipped with 10 science instruments.

The new images released today are the best taken so far by the Navcam camera. The probes OSIRIS science camera are even more detailed, and will hopefully be released by ESA soon!

“This is the first time landing sites on a comet have been considered,” said Stephan Ulamec, Lander Manager at DLR (German Aerospace Center), in an ESA statement.

Since rendezvousing with the comet after a decade long chase of over 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles), a top priority task for the science and engineering team leading Rosetta has been “Finding a landing strip” for the Philae comet lander.

“The clock is ticking’ to select a suitable landing zone soon since the comet warms up and the surface becomes ever more active as it swings in closer to the sun and makes the landing ever more hazardous.

This image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko shows the diversity of surface structures on the comet's nucleus. It was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft's OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on August 7, 2014. At the time, the spacecraft was 65 miles (104 kilometers) away from the 2.5 mile (4 kilometer) wide nucleus.  Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA/Enhanced processing Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
This image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko shows the diversity of surface structures on the comet’s nucleus. It was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on August 7, 2014. At the time, the spacecraft was 65 miles (104 kilometers) away from the 2.5 mile (4 kilometer) wide nucleus. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA/Enhanced processing Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

The three-legged lander will fire two harpoons and use ice screws to anchor itself to the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) wide comet’s surface. Philae will collect stereo and panoramic images and also drill 23 centimeters into and sample its incredibly varied surface.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta's navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been rotated and contrast enhanced to bring out details. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been rotated and contrast enhanced to bring out details. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale.  Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM - Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Read my Rosetta series here:

5 Landing Site Candidates Selected for Rosetta’s Historic Philae Comet Lander

Rosetta Moving Closer to Comet 67P Hunting for Philae Landing Site

What’s Ahead for Rosetta – ‘Finding a Landing Strip’ on Bizarre Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Rosetta Arrives at ‘Scientific Disneyland’ for Ambitious Study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after 10 Year Voyage

Rosetta on Final Approach to Historic Comet Rendezvous – Watch Live Here

Rosetta Probe Swoops Closer to Comet Destination than ISS is to Earth and Reveals Exquisite Views

Rosetta Orbiter less than 500 Kilometers from Comet 67P Following Penultimate Trajectory Burn

Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

5 Landing Site Candidates Selected for Rosetta’s Historic Philae Comet Lander

Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander. The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Enlarged insets below highlight 5 landing zones. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Story updated[/caption]

The ‘Top 5’ landing site candidates have been chosen for the Rosetta orbiters piggybacked Philae lander for humankind’s first attempt to land on a comet. See graphics above and below.

The potential touchdown sites were announce today, Aug. 25, based on high resolution measurements collected by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft over the past two weeks since arriving at the bizarre and pockmarked Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Aug. 6, 2014.

Rosetta is a mission of many firsts, including history’s first ever attempt to orbit a comet for long term study.

Philae’s history making landing on comet 67P is currently scheduled for around Nov. 11, 2014, and will be entirely automatic. The 100 kg lander is equipped with 10 science instruments.

“This is the first time landing sites on a comet have been considered,” said Stephan Ulamec, Lander Manager at DLR (German Aerospace Center), in an ESA statement.

Artist impression of Philae on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Artist impression of Philae on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Since rendezvousing with the comet after a decade long chase of over 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles), a top priority task for the science and engineering team leading Rosetta has been “Finding a landing strip” for the Philae comet lander.

“The challenge ahead is to map the surface and find a landing strip,” said Andrea Accomazzo, ESA Rosetta Spacecraft Operations Manager, at the Aug. 6 ESA arrival live webcast.

So ‘the clock is ticking’ to select a suitable landing zone soon as the comet warms up and the surface becomes ever more active as it swings in closer to the sun and makes the landing ever more hazardous.

This past weekend, the site selection team met at CNES, Toulouse, France, and intensively discussed and scrutinized a preliminary list of 10 potential sites, and whittled that down to the ‘Top 5.’

Their goal was to find a ‘technically feasible’ touchdown site that was both safe and scientifically interesting.

“The site must balance the technical needs of the orbiter and lander during all phases of the separation, descent, and landing, and during operations on the surface with the scientific requirements of the 10 instruments on board Philae,” said ESA.

They also had to be within an ellipse of at least 1 square kilometer (six-tenths of a square mile) in diameter due to uncertainties in navigation as well as many other factors.

“For each possible zone, important questions must be asked: Will the lander be able to maintain regular communications with Rosetta? How common are surface hazards such as large boulders, deep crevasses or steep slopes? Is there sufficient illumination for scientific operations and enough sunlight to recharge the lander’s batteries beyond its initial 64-hour lifetime, while not so much as to cause overheating?” according to ESA.

Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager at DLR (German Aerospace Center) discusses landing during ESA webcast of Rosetta’s arrival at comet  Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA
Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager at DLR (German Aerospace Center) discusses landing during ESA webcast of Rosetta’s arrival at comet Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA

The Landing Site Selection Group (LSSG) team was comprised of engineers and scientists from Philae’s Science, Operations and Navigation Centre (SONC) at CNES, the Lander Control Centre (LCC) at DLR, scientists representing the Philae Lander instruments as well as the ESA Rosetta team, which includes representatives from science, operations and flight dynamics.

“Based on the particular shape and the global topography of Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko, it is probably no surprise that many locations had to be ruled out,” said Ulamec.

“The candidate sites that we want to follow up for further analysis are thought to be technically feasible on the basis of a preliminary analysis of flight dynamics and other key issues – for example they all provide at least six hours of daylight per comet rotation and offer some flat terrain. Of course, every site has the potential for unique scientific discoveries.”

When Rosetta arrived on Aug. 6, it was initially orbiting at a distance of about 100 km (62 miles) in front of the comet. Carefully timed thruster firings then brought it to within about 80 km distance. And it is moving far closer – to within 50 kilometers (31 miles) and even closer!

Upon arrival the comet was 522 million km from the Sun. As Rosetta escorts the comet looping around the sun, they move much closer. By landing time in mid-November they are only about 450 million km (280 million mi) from the sun.

At closest approach on 13 August 2015 the comet and Rosetta will be 185 million km from the Sun. That corresponds to an eightfold increase in the light received from the Sun.

Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander.   The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August from a distance of about 100 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander. The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Therefore Rosetta and Philae will simultaneously study the warming effects of the sun as the comet outgases dust, water and much more.

The short period Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has an orbital period of 6.5 years.

“The comet is very different to anything we’ve seen before, and exhibits spectacular features still to be understood,” says Jean-Pierre Bibring, a lead lander scientist and principal investigator of the CIVA instrument.

“The five chosen sites offer us the best chance to land and study the composition, internal structure and activity of the comet with the ten lander experiments.”

A close-up view of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko taken by the Rosetta spacecraft on Aug. 7, 2014. Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
A close-up view of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko taken by the Rosetta spacecraft on Aug. 7, 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

The ‘Top 5’ zones will be ranked by 14 September. Three are on the ‘head’ and two are on the ‘body’ of the bizarre two lobed alien world.

And a backup landing site will also be chosen for planning purposes and to develop landing sequences.

The ultimate selection of the primary landing site is slated for 14 October after consultation between ESA and the lander team on a “Go/No Go” decision.

The three-legged lander will fire two harpoons and use ice screws to anchor itself to the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) wide comet’s surface. Philae will collect stereo and panoramic images and also drill 23 centimeters into and sample its incredibly varied surface.

Why study comets?

Comets are leftover remnants from the formation of the solar system. Scientists believe they delivered a vast quantity of water to Earth. They may have also seeded Earth with organic molecules – the building blocks of life as we know it.

Any finding of organic molecules will be a major discovery for Rosetta and ESA and inform us about the origin of life on Earth.

Read an Italian language version of this story by my imaging partner Marco Di Lorenzo – here

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator, discusses spectacular hi res comet images returned so far by Rosetta during the Aug. 6 ESA webcast from mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: Roland Keller
Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator, discusses spectacular hi res comet images returned so far by Rosetta during the Aug. 6 ESA webcast from mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: Roland Keller
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA   Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Read my Rosetta series here:

Rosetta Moving Closer to Comet 67P Hunting for Philae Landing Site


Coma Dust Collection Science starts for Rosetta at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

What’s Ahead for Rosetta – ‘Finding a Landing Strip’ on Bizarre Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Rosetta Arrives at ‘Scientific Disneyland’ for Ambitious Study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after 10 Year Voyage

Rosetta on Final Approach to Historic Comet Rendezvous – Watch Live Here

Rosetta Probe Swoops Closer to Comet Destination than ISS is to Earth and Reveals Exquisite Views

Rosetta Orbiter less than 500 Kilometers from Comet 67P Following Penultimate Trajectory Burn

Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

Rosetta Moving Closer to Comet 67P Hunting for Philae Landing Site

Animation Caption: Possible landing sites on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The model shows the illumination of the comets surface and regions under landing site consideration for the Philae lander on board ESA’s Rosetta spececraft . Credit: CNES

“The race is on” to find a safe and scientifically interesting landing site for the Philae lander piggybacked on ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft as it swoops in ever closer to the heavily cratered Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko since arriving two weeks ago after a decade long chase of 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles).

Rosetta made history by becoming the first ever probe from Earth to orbit a comet upon arrival on Aug. 6, 2014.

The probe discovered an utterly alien and bizarre icy wanderer that science team member Mark McCaughrean, of ESA’s Science Directorate, delightedly calls a ‘Scientific Disneyland.’

“It’s just astonishing,” he said during a live ESA webcast of the Aug. 6 arrival event.

Now, another audacious and history making event is on tap – Landing on the comet!

To enable a safe landing, Rosetta is moving in closer to the comet to gather higher resolution imaging and spectroscopic data. When Rosetta arrived on Aug. 6, it was initially orbiting at a distance of about 100 km (62 miles). As of today, carefully timed thruster firings have brought it to within about 80 km distance. And it will get far closer.

Right now a top priority task for the science and engineering team leading Rosetta is “Finding a landing strip” for the Philae comet lander.

Philae’s landing on comet 67P is currently scheduled for Nov. 11, 2014. The 100 kg lander is equipped with 10 science instruments

“The challenge ahead is to map the surface and find a landing strip,” said Andrea Accomazzo, ESA Rosetta Spacecraft Operations Manager, at the Aug. 6 ESA webcast.

The team responsibility for choosing the candidate sites comprises “the Landing Site Selection Group (LSSG), which comprises engineers and scientists from Philae’s Science, Operations and Navigation Centre (SONC) at CNES, the Lander Control Centre (LCC) at DLR, scientists representing the Philae Lander instruments, and supported by the ESA Rosetta team, which includes representatives from science, operations and flight dynamics,” according to an ESA statement.

This week the team is intensively combing through a preliminary list of 10 potential landing sites.

Over the weekend they will whittle the list down to five candidate landing sites for continued detailed analysis.

ESA will announce the Top 5 landing site candidates on Monday, Aug. 25.

This image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko shows the diversity of surface structures on the comet's nucleus. It was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft's OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on August 7, 2014. At the time, the spacecraft was 65 miles (104 kilometers) away from the 2.5 mile (4 kilometer) wide nucleus.  Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA/Enhanced processing Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Where will Philae land?
This image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko shows the diversity of surface structures on the comet’s nucleus. It was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on August 7, 2014. At the time, the spacecraft was 65 miles (104 kilometers) away from the 2.5 mile (4 kilometer) wide nucleus. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA/Enhanced processing Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

The decision rests on the results of Rosetta’s ongoing global mapping campaign, including high resolution imaging from the OSIRIS and NAVCAM cameras and further observations from the other science instruments, especially MIRO, VIRTIS, ALICE, GIADA and ROSINA.

The surface criteria for a suitable landing site include day time landing illumination, a balance between day and night to allow the solar panels to recharge the batteries, avoiding steep slopes, large boulders and deep crevasses so it doesn’t topple over.

Of course the team also must consider the comet’s rotation period (12.4 hours) and axis of rotation (see animation at top). Sites near the equator offering roughly equal periods of day and night may be preferred.

The selection of the primary landing site is slated for mid-October after consultation between ESA and the lander team on a “Go/No Go” decision.

The three-legged lander will fire two harpoons and use ice screws to anchor itself to the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) wide comet’s surface. Philae will collect stereo and panoramic images and also drill 23 centimeters into and sample its incredibly varied surface.

Artist impression of Philae on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Artist impression of Philae on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Read an Italian language version of this story by my imaging partner Marco Di Lorenzo – here

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

What’s Ahead for Rosetta – ‘Finding a Landing Strip’ on Bizarre Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Where would you land here?
Newly released NAVCAM image taken by Rosetta on 5 August 2014 from a distance of about 145 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image has been rotated 180 degrees. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM[/caption]

Following the flawless and history making arrival of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft at its long sought destination of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Wednesday, Aug. 6, the goal of conducting ground breaking science at this utterly alien and bizarre icy wanderer that looks like a ‘Scientific Disneyland’ can actually begin.

Rosetta is the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet and enter orbit – after a more than 10 year chase of 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles) along a highly complex trajectory from Earth. The arrival event was broadcast live from mission control at ESA’s spacecraft operations centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. Read my complete arrival story – here.

So what’s ahead for Rosetta? Another audacious and history making event – Landing on the comet!

A top priority task is also another highly complex task – ‘Finding a landing strip’ on the bizarre world of Comet 67P for the piggybacked Philae comet lander equipped with 10 science instruments.

“The challenge ahead is to map the surface and find a landing strip,” said Andrea Accomazzo, ESA Rosetta Spacecraft Operations Manager, at the Aug. 6 ESA webcast.

That will be no easy task based on the spectacular imagery captured by the OSIRIS high resolution science camera and the Navcam camera that has revealed an utterly wacky and incredibly differentiated world like none other we have ever visited or expected when the mission was conceived.

Magnificently detailed new navcam images were released by ESA today, Aug, 7, streaming back to Earth across some 405 million kilometers (250 million miles) of interplanetary space – see above and below.

The team will have its hand full trying to find a safe spot for touchdown.

“We now see lots of structure and details. Lots of topography is visible on the surface,” said Holger Sierks, principal investigator for Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, during the webcast.

“There is a big depression and 150 meter high cliffs, rubble piles, and also we see smooth areas and plains. It’s really fantastic”

“We see a village of house size boulders. Some about 10 meters in size and bigger and they vary in brightness. And some with sharp edges. We don’t know their composition yet,” explained Sierks.

NAVCAM image taken on 6 August 2014 from a distance of about 96 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.   Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
Newly released NAVCAM image taken on 6 August 2014 from a distance of about 96 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

The key to finding a safe landing site for Philae will be quickly conducting a global comet mapping campaign with OSIRIS, Navcam and the remaining suite of 11 science instruments to provide a detailed scientific study of the physical characteristics and chemical composition of the surface.

They also need to determine which areas are hard or soft.

Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator, discuss spectacular hi res comet images returned so far by Rosetta during the Aug. 6 ESA webcast from mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: Roland Keller
Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator, discusses spectacular hi res comet images returned so far by Rosetta during the Aug. 6 ESA webcast from mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: Roland Keller

“Our first clear views of the comet have given us plenty to think about,” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.

“Is this double-lobed structure built from two separate comets that came together in the Solar System’s history, or is it one comet that has eroded dramatically and asymmetrically over time? Rosetta, by design, is in the best place to study one of these unique objects.”

The image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km.   Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
The image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Yesterday’s (Aug. 6) critical final thruster firing placed the 1.3 Billion euro robotic emissary from Earth into a triangular shaped orbit about 100 kilometers (62 miles) above and in front of the comet’s incredibly varied surface.

Therefore the initial mapping will be conducted from the 100 km (62 mi.) standoff distance.

Since the landing is currently targeted for November 11, 2014, in barely three months time there is not a moment to waste.

“Over the next few months, in addition to characterizing the comet nucleus and setting the bar for the rest of the mission, we will begin final preparations for another space history first: landing on a comet,” says Taylor.

The team will identify up to five possible landing sites by late August and expect to choose the primary site by mid-September.

Then the team has to plan and build the programming and maneuvers for the final timeline to implement the sequence of events leading to the nailbiting landing.

With Rosetta now travelling in a series of 100 kilometer-long (62 mile-long) triangular arcs in front of the comet lasting about 3 days each, it will also be firing thrusters at each apex.

After catching up with the comet Rosetta will slightly overtake and enter orbit from the ‘front’ of the comet as both the spacecraft and 67P/CG move along their orbits around the Sun. Rosetta will carry out a complex series of manoeuvres to reduce the separation between the spacecraft and comet from around 100 km to 25-30 km. From this close orbit, detailed mapping will allow scientists to determine the landing site for the mission’s Philae lander. Immediately prior to the deployment of Philae in November, Rosetta will come to within just 2.5 km of the comet’s nucleus.  This animation is not to scale; Rosetta’s solar arrays span 32 m, and the comet is approximately 4 km wide.  Credit: ESA–C. Carreau
After catching up with the comet Rosetta will slightly overtake and enter orbit from the ‘front’ of the comet as both the spacecraft and 67P/CG move along their orbits around the Sun. Rosetta will carry out a complex series of manoeuvres to reduce the separation between the spacecraft and comet from around 100 km to 25-30 km. From this close orbit, detailed mapping will allow scientists to determine the landing site for the mission’s Philae lander. Immediately prior to the deployment of Philae in November, Rosetta will come to within just 2.5 km of the comet’s nucleus. This animation is not to scale; Rosetta’s solar arrays span 32 m, and the comet is approximately 4 km wide. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau

But it will also gradually edge closer over the next six weeks to about 50 km distance and then even closer to lower Rosetta’s altitude about Comet 67P until the spacecraft is captured by the comet’s gravity.

In November 2014, Rosetta will attempt another historic first when it deploys the Philae science lander from an altitude of just about 2.5 kilometers above the comet for the first ever attempt to land on a comet’s nucleus.

The three-legged lander will fire harpoons and use ice screws to anchor itself to the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) wide comet’s surface. Philae will collect stereo and panoramic images and also drill into and sample its incredibly varied surface.

How will Philae land?

Stefan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) talked about the challenges of landing in a low gravity environment during the ESA webcast.

“The touchdown will be at a speed of just 1 m/s,” Ulamec explained. “This is like walking and bouncing against a wall.”

Details in an upcoming story!

Why study comets?

Comets are leftover remnants from the formation of the solar system. Scientists believe they delivered a vast quantity of water to Earth. They may have also seeded Earth with organic molecules.

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale.  Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM - Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

…….

Read my Rosetta series here:

Rosetta Arrives at ‘Scientific Disneyland’ for Ambitious Study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after 10 Year Voyage

Rosetta on Final Approach to Historic Comet Rendezvous – Watch Live Here

Rosetta Probe Swoops Closer to Comet Destination than ISS is to Earth and Reveals Exquisite Views

Rosetta Orbiter less than 500 Kilometers from Comet 67P Following Penultimate Trajectory Burn

Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA   Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Rosetta Arrives at ‘Scientific Disneyland’ for Ambitious Study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after 10 Year Voyage

The image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Story updated[/caption]

“We’re at the comet! Yes,” exclaimed Rosetta Spacecraft Operations Manager Sylvain Lodiot, confirming the spacecraft’s historic arrival at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko during a live webcast this morning, Aug. 6, from mission control at ESA’s spacecraft operations centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta comet hunter successfully reached its long sought destination after a flawless orbital thruster firing at 11 AM CEST to become the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet and enter orbit aimed at an ambitious long term quest to produce ground breaking science.

“Ten years we’ve been in the car waiting to get to scientific Disneyland and we haven’t even gotten out of the car yet and look at what’s outside the window,” Mark McCaughrean, senior scientific adviser to ESA’s Science Directorate, said during today’s webcast. “It’s just astonishing.”

“The really big question is where did we and the solar system we live in come from? How did water and the complex organic molecules that build up life get to this planet? Water and life. These are the questions that motivate everybody.”

“Rosetta is indeed the ‘rosetta stone’ that will unlock this treasure chest to all comets.”

Today’s rendezvous climaxed Rosetta’s decade long and 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles) hot pursuit through interplanetary space for a cosmic kiss with Comet 67P while speeding towards the inner Solar System at nearly 55,000 kilometers per hour.

The probe is sending back spectacular up close high resolution imagery of the mysterious binary, two lobed comet, merged at a bright band at the narrow neck of the celestial wanderer that looks like a ‘rubber ducky.’

“This is the best comet nucleus ever resolved in space with the sharpest ever views of the nucleus, with 5.5.meter pixel resolution,” said Holger Sierks, principal investigator for Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, during the webcast.

Back side view of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km.   The image resolution is 5.3 metres/pixel. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Back side view of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km. The image resolution is 5.3 metres/pixel. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

“We now see lots of structure and details. Lots of topography is visible on the surface. We see the nucleus and outgassing activity. The outbursts are seen with overexposed images. It’s really fantastic”

“There is a big depression on the head and 150 meter high cliffs, rubble piles, and also we see smooth areas and plains. The neck is about 1000 meters deep and is a cool area. There is outgassing visible from the neck.”

“We see a village of house size boulders. Some about 10 meters in size and bigger they vary in brightness. And some with sharp edges. We don’t know their composition yet.”

“We don’t understand how its created yet. That’s what we’ll find out in coming months as we get closer.”

“Rosetta has arrived and will get even closer. We’ll get ten times the resolution compared to now.”

“The comet is a story about us. It will be the key in cometary science. Where did it form? What does it tell us about the water on Earth and the early solar system and where it come from?”

Following the blastoff on 2 March 2004 tucked inside the payload fairing of an Ariane 5 G+ rocket from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, Rosetta traveled on a complex trajectory.

It conducted four gravity assist speed boosting slingshot maneuvers, three at Earth and one at Mars, to gain sufficient velocity to reach the comet, Lodiot explained.

The 1.3 Billion euro robotic emissary from Earth is now orbiting about 100 kilometers (62 miles) above the comet’s surface, some 405 million kilometers (250 million mi.) from Earth, about half way between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars.

The main event today, Aug. 6, was to complete an absolutely critical thruster firing which was the last of 10 orbit correction maneuvers (OCM’s). It started precisely on time at 11:00 AM CEST/09:00 GMT/5:00 AM EST, said Lodiot. The signal was one of the cleanest of the entire mission.

The orbital insertion engine firing dubbed the Close Approach Trajectory – Insertion (CATI) burn was scheduled to last about 6 minutes 26 seconds. Confirmation of a successful burn came some 28 minutes later.

“We’re at the comet! Yes,” Lodiot excitedly announced live whereupon the crowd of team members, dignitaries and journalists at ESOC erupted in cheers.

For the next 17 months, the probe will escort comet 67P as it loops around the Sun towards perihelion in August 2015 and then continue along on the outbound voyage towards Jupiter.

ESA’s incredibly bold mission will also deploy the three-legged piggybacked Philae lander to touch down and drill into and sample its incredibly varied surface a little over three months from now.

Together, Rosetta and Philae are equipped with a suite of 21 science instruments to conduct an unprecedented investigation to characterize the 4 km wide (2.5 mi.) comet and study how the pristine frozen body composed of ice and rock is transformed by the warmth of the Sun.

Comets are believed to have delivered a vast quantity of water to Earth. They may have also seeded Earth with organic molecules.

Close-up detail of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The image was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera and downloaded today, 6 August. The image shows the comet’s ‘head’ at the left of the frame, which is casting shadow onto the ‘neck’ and ‘body’ to the right.  The image was taken from a distance of 120 km and the image resolution is 2.2 metres per pixel. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Close-up detail of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The image was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera and downloaded today, 6 August. The image shows the comet’s ‘head’ at the left of the frame, which is casting shadow onto the ‘neck’ and ‘body’ to the right.
The image was taken from a distance of 120 km and the image resolution is 2.2 metres per pixel. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Rosetta and Philae will also search for organic molecules, nucleic acids and amino acids, the building blocks for life as we know it by sampling and analyzing the comets nucleus and coma cloud of gas and dust.

“The first coma sampling could happen as early as next week,” said Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist on the webcast.

“Is this double-lobed structure built from two separate comets that came together in the Solar System’s history, or is it one comet that has eroded dramatically and asymmetrically over time? Rosetta, by design, is in the best place to study one of these unique objects.”

After thoroughly mapping the comet, the team will command Rosetta to move even lower to 50 km altitude and then even lower to 30 km and less.

The scientists and engineers will search for up to five possible landing sites for Philae to prepare for the touchdown in mid-November 2014.

“We want to characterize the nucleus so we can land in November,” said Taylor. “We will have a ringside along with the comet as it moves inwards to the sun and then further out.”

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko activity on 2 August 2014. The IMAGE was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS wide-angle camera from a distance of 550 km. The exposure time of the image was 330 seconds and the comet nucleus is saturated to bring out the detail of the comet activity. Note there is a ghost image to the right. The image resolution is 55 metres per pixel. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko activity on 2 August 2014. The IMAGE was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS wide-angle camera from a distance of 550 km. The exposure time of the image was 330 seconds and the comet nucleus is saturated to bring out the detail of the comet activity. Note there is a ghost image to the right. The image resolution is 55 metres per pixel. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Studying comets will shed light on the history of water and life on Earth.

“We are going to places we have never been to before,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General during the webcast.

“We want to get answers to questions to the origin to water and complex molecules on Earth. This opens up even more new questions than answers.”

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale.  Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM - Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Watch for updates.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

……..

Read my Rosetta series here:

Rosetta on Final Approach to Historic Comet Rendezvous – Watch Live Here

Rosetta Probe Swoops Closer to Comet Destination than ISS is to Earth and Reveals Exquisite Views

Rosetta Orbiter less than 500 Kilometers from Comet 67P Following Penultimate Trajectory Burn


Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA   Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 to July 31, 2014, with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s coma on July 25 from a distance of around 3000 km. On July 31 Rosetta had approached to within 1327 km. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Story updated[/caption]

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft is at last rapidly closing in on its target destination, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, after a decade long chase of 6.4 billion kilometers through interplanetary space. See imagery above and below.

As of today, Friday, August 1, ESA reports that Rosetta has approached the ‘rubber ducky looking’ comet to within a distance of less than 1153 kilometers. That distance narrows with each passing moment as the speeding robotic probe moves closer and closer to the comet while looping around the sun at about 55,000 kilometers per hour (kph).

Rosetta is now just 5 days away from becoming Earth’s first probe ever to rendezvous and enter orbit around a comet.

See above our image collage of Rosetta nearing final approach with the spacecrafts most recent daily Navcam camera images, all taken within the past week starting on July 25 and including up to the most recently release image snapped on July 31. The navcam images are all to scale to give the sense of the spacecraft approaching the comet and revealing ever greater detail as it grows in apparent size in the cameras field of view. The navcam images were also taken at about the same time of day each day.

The highest resolution navcam image yet of the two lobed comet – merged at a bright band – was taken on July 31 from a distance of 1327 kilometers and published within the past few hours by ESA today, Aug 1. It shows the best view yet of the surface features of the mysterious bright necked wanderer composed of primordial ice, rock, dust and more.

The Navcam collage is combined with an OSIRIS (Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System) wide angle camera view of the comet and its asymmetric coma of ice and dust snapped on July 25 from a distance of around 3000 km, and with an exposure time of 300 seconds. The OSIRIS image covers an area of about 150 x 150 km (90 mi x 90 mi). The images have been contrast enhanced to bring out more detail.

Scientists speculate that the comets bright neck region could be caused by differences in material or grain size or topological effects.

Rosetta’s history making orbital feat is slated for Aug. 6 following the final short duration orbit insertion burns on Aug. 3 and Aug. 6 to place Rosetta into orbit at an altitude of about 100 kilometers (62 miles) where it will study and map the 4 kilometer wide comet for some 17 months.

The comet rotates around once every 12.4 hours.

Crop from the 31 July processed image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, to focus on the comet nucleus. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
Crop from the 31 July processed image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, to focus on the comet nucleus. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

“If any glitches in space or on ground had delayed the most recent burns, orbital mechanics dictate that we’d only have had a matter of a few days to fix the problem, re-plan the burn and carry it out, otherwise we run the risk of missing the comet,” says Trevor Morley, a flight dynamics specialist at ESOC.

In November 2014 the Rosetta mothership will deploy the Philae science lander for the first ever attempt to land on a comet’s nucleus using harpoons to anchor itself to the surface while the comet is rotating.

As Rosetta edges closer on its final lap, engineers at mission control at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), in Darmstadt, Germany have commanded the probes navigation camera (navcam) to capture daily images while the other science instruments also collect measurements analyzing the comets physical characteristics and chemical composition in detail.

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This image collage from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant).  Top row shows images as seen by spacecraft. Bottom row shows images rotated to same orientation.  Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM. Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This image collage from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant). Top row shows images as seen by spacecraft. Bottom row shows images rotated to same orientation. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM. Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

The probe has already discovered that the comet’s surface temperature is surprisingly warm at –70ºC, which is some 20–30ºC warmer than predicted. This indicates the surface is too hot to be covered in ice and must instead have a dark, dusty crust, says ESA.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a short period comet some 555 million kilometres from the Sun at this time, about three times further away than Earth and located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars.

You can watch the Aug. 6 orbital arrival live via a livestream transmission from ESA’s spacecraft operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

While you were reading this the gap between the comet and Rosetta closed to less than 1000 kilometers!

The coma of Rosetta's target comet as seen with the OSIRIS wide-angle camera. The image spans 150 km and was taken on 25 July 2014 with an exposure time of 330 seconds. The greyscale relates to the particle density in the coma, with highest density close to the nucleus, becoming more diffuse further away. The hazy circular structure on the right is an artefact. The nucleus is also overexposured. The specks and the streaks in the background are attributed to background stars and cosmic rays.  Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
The coma of Rosetta’s target comet as seen with the OSIRIS wide-angle camera. The image spans 150 km and was taken on 25 July 2014 with an exposure time of 330 seconds. The greyscale relates to the particle density in the coma, with highest density close to the nucleus, becoming more diffuse further away. The hazy circular structure on the right is an artefact. The nucleus is also overexposured. The specks and the streaks in the background are attributed to background stars and cosmic rays. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with negative OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA    Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with negative OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Birthday cakes at @ESA_Rosetta Flight Dynamics are taking strange binary shapes these days... #ESOC. Credit:  ESA
Birthday cakes at @ESA_Rosetta Flight Dynamics are taking strange binary shapes these days… #ESOC. Credit: ESA

Asteroid Lutetia May Have A Molten Core

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Way out in space, 282 million miles from home, the intrepid ESA Rosetta spacecraft is still busy, but had time to send us an unprecedented view of ancient asteroid Lutetia. On July 10, 2010, Rosetta flew past Lutetia and the results of the imaging revealed surface features which point to an astonishing history. This particular asteroid might not have a “heart of gold”, but it may very well have – or had – a molten interior.

Buzzing by at a speed of 54 000 km/hr and a closest distance of 3170 km, Rosetta took a series of high resolution images and returned them to an international team of researchers from France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States. By closely examining the craters, cracks and surface, the team was able to determine that Lutetia survived a multitude of impacts – yet retained much of its original structure.

Lutetia fly-by from Science News on Vimeo.

Benjamin Weiss, an associate professor of planetary sciences in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, reports Lutetia may have a molten core and this finding shows a “hidden diversity” for known structures within the greater asteroid belt.

“There might be many bodies that have cores and interesting interiors that we never noticed, because they’re covered by unmelted surfaces,” says Weiss, who is a co-author on both Science papers and lead author for the paper in PSS. “The asteroid belt may be more interesting than it seems on the surface.”

Although the encounter was brief, images from the OSIRIS camera revealed some surface features which are believed to be up to 3.6 billion years old – while others appear to be 50-80 million. These ages can be estimated through impact events and the amount and distribution of ejecta. Some of the areas on Lutetia are heavily cratered, implying greater age, while others appear to be landslide events perhaps caused by nearby fractures. While most asteroids are small, light, and have smooth surfaces – Lutetia is different. It appears to be dense, yet relatively porous… a finding that points toward a “dense metallic core, with a once melted interior underneath its fractured crust.”

“We don’t think Lutetia was born looking like this,” says Holger Sierks, of the Max-Planck-Institut für Sonnensystemforschung, Lindau, Germany. “It was probably round when it formed.”

You’ve got to hand it to Rosetta. By being able to study these images, the many teams of scientists now have evidence for a theory developed last year by Weiss, Elkins-Tanton and MIT’s Maria Zuber. By studying chondrite meteorites, they’ve speculated these strongly magnetized samples most likely occurred in an asteroid with a melted, metallic core. If this theory proves to be correct, the Lutetia simply managed to dodge the proverbial bullets and developed with a molten interior.

“The planets … don’t retain a record of these early differentiation processes,” Weiss says. “So this asteroid may be a relic of the first events of melting in a body.”

According to MIT news, Erik Asphaug, a professor of planetary science at the University of California at Santa Cruz, studies “hit-and-run” collisions between early planetary bodies. He says the work by Weiss and his colleagues is a solid step toward resolving how certain asteroids like Lutetia may have evolved.

“We’ve had decades of cartoon speculation, and here’s speculation that’s anchored in physical understanding of how the interiors of these bodies would evolve,” says Asphaug, who was not involved in the research. “It’s like getting through the first 100 pages of a novel, and you don’t know where it’s leading, but it feels like the beginnings of a coherent picture.”

Another Rosetta stone?

Original Story Sources: ESA News Release and MIT News Release.