Rosetta’s 67P Is The Result Of A Collision Of Two Comets

Ever since we’ve been able to get closer looks at comets in our Solar System, we’ve noticed something a little puzzling. Rather than being round, they’re mostly elongated or multi-lobed. This is certainly true of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P or Chury for short.) A new paper from an international team coordinated by Patrick Michel at France’s CNRS explains how they form this way.

The European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft Rosetta visited 67P in 2014, end even placed its lander Philae on the surface. Rosetta spent 17 months orbiting 67P, and at its closest approach, Rosetta was only 10 km (6 mi) from 67P’s surface. Rosetta’s mission ended with its guided impact into 67P’s surface in September, 2016, but the attempt to understand the comet and its brethren didn’t end then.

An artist’s illustration of the spacecraft Rosetta and the Philae lander at comet 67P C-G. Image: By European Space Agency – Rosetta and Philae at comet, CC BY-SA 3.0-igo,

Though Rosetta’s pictures of 67P are the most detailed comet pictures we have, other spacecraft have visited other comets. And most of those other comets appear elongated or multi-lobed, too. Scientists explain these shapes with a “comet merger theory.” Two comets collide, creating the multi-lobed appearance of comets like 67P. But there’s been a problem with that theory.

In order for comets to merge and come out looking the way they do, they would have to merge very slowly, or else they would explode. They would also have to be very low-density, and be very rich in volatile elements. The “comet merger theory” also says that these types of gentle mergers between comets would have to have happened billions of years ago, in the early days of the Solar System.

The problem with this theory is, how could bodies like 67P have survived for so long? 67P is fragile, and subjected to repeated collisions in its part of the Solar System. How could it have retained its volatiles?

Geysers of dust and gas shooting off the comet’s nucleus are called jets. The volatile material they deliver outside the nucleus builds the comet’s coma. Credit: ESA/Rostta/NAVCAM

In the new paper, the research team ran a simulation that answers these questions.

The simulation showed that when two comets meet in a destructive collision, only a small portion of their material is pulverized and reduced to dust. On the sides of the comets opposite from the impact point, materials rich in volatiles withstand the collision. They’re still ejected into space, but their relative speed is low enough for them to join together in accretion. This process forms many smaller bodies, which keep clumping up until they form just one, larger body.

The most surprising part of this simulation is that this entire process may only take a few days, or even a few hours. The whole process explains how comets like 67P can keep their low density, and their abundant volatiles. And why they appear multi-lobed.

This image from the simulation shows how the ejected material from two bodies colliding re-accretes into a bilobal comet. Image: ESA/Rosetta/Navcam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

The simulation also answered another question: how can comets like 67P survive for so long?

The team behind the simulation thinks that the process can take place at speeds of 1 km/second. These speeds are typical in the Kuiper Belt, which is the disc of comets where 67P has its origins. In this belt, collisions between comets are a regular occurrence, which means that 67P didn’t have to form in the early days of the Solar System as previously thought. It could have formed at any time.

The team’s work also explains the surface appearance of 67P and other comets. They often have holes and stratified layers, and these features could have formed during re-accretion, or sometime after its formation.

Smooth terrain in the Imhotep region on 67P C-G, showing layering (B) and circular structures or pits (circled). Credit: ESA/Rosetta

One final point from the study concerns the composition of comets. One reason they’re a focus of such intense interest is their age. Scientists have always thought of them as ancient objects, and that studying them would allow us to look back into the primordial Solar System.

Though 67P—and other comets—may have formed much more recently than we used to believe, this process shows that there is no significant amount of heating or compaction during the collision. As a result, their original composition from the the early days of the Solar System is retained intact. No matter when 67P formed, it’s still a messenger from the formative days.

You can watch a video from the simulation here: http://www.dropbox.com/s/u7643hanvva57rp/Catastrophic%20disruptions.mp4?dl=0

Spectacular Celestial Fireworks Commemorate Perihelion Passage of Rosetta’s Comet

Sequence of OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images from 12 August 2015, just a few hours before the comet reached perihelion. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
See hi res images below[/caption]

A spectacular display of celestial fireworks like none ever witnessed before, burst forth from Rosetta’s comet right on time – commemorating the Europeans spacecraft’s history making perihelion passage after a year long wait of mounting excitement and breathtaking science.

As the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Rosetta marked its closest approach to the Sun (perihelion) at exactly 02:03 GMT on Thursday, August 13, 2015, while orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, its suite of 11 state-of-the-art science instruments, cameras and spectrometers were trained on the utterly bizarre bi-lobed body to capture every facet of the comet’s nature and environment for analysis by the gushing science teams.

And the perihelion passage did not disappoint – living up to its advance billing by spewing forth an unmatched display of otherworldly outbursts of gas jets and dust particles due to surface heating from the warming effects of the sun as the comet edged ever closer, coming within 186 million kilometers of mighty Sol.

ESA has released a brand new series of images, shown above and below, documenting sparks flying – as seen by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera and NAVCAM wider angle cameras on August 12 and 13 – just a few hours before the rubby ducky shaped comet reached perihelion along its 6.5-year orbit around the sun.

Images of Comet 67P/C-G taken with OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 12 August 2015, just a few hours before the comet reached perihelion, about 330 km from the comet. The individual images are also available below. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Images of Comet 67P/C-G taken with OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 12 August 2015, just a few hours before the comet reached perihelion, about 330 km from the comet. The individual images are also available below. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Indeed the navcam camera image below was taken just an hour before the moment of perihelion, at 01:04 GMT, from a distance of around 327 kilometers!

Frozen ices are seen blasting away from the comet in a hail of gas and dust particles as rising solar radiation heats the nucleus and fortifies the comet’s atmosphere, or coma, and its tail.

Comet at perihelion.  Single frame Rosetta navigation camera image acquired at 01:04 GMT on 13 August 2015, just one hour before Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko reached perihelion – the closest point to the Sun along its 6.5-year orbit. The image was taken around 327 km from the comet. It has a resolution of 28 m/pixel, measures 28.6 km across and was processed to bring out the details of the comet's activity. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
Comet at perihelion. Single frame Rosetta navigation camera image acquired at 01:04 GMT on 13 August 2015, just one hour before Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko reached perihelion – the closest point to the Sun along its 6.5-year orbit. The image was taken around 327 km from the comet. It has a resolution of 28 m/pixel, measures 28.6 km across and was processed to bring out the details of the comet’s activity. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

After a decade long chase of over 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles), ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft arrived at the pockmarked Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko exactly a year ago on Aug. 6, 2014 for history’s first ever attempt to orbit a comet for long term study.

In the interim, Rosetta also deployed the piggybacked Philae lander for history’s first landing on a comet on Nov. 12, 2014.

In fact, measurements from Rosetta’s science instruments confirm the comet is belching a thousand times more water vapor today than was observed during Rosetta’s arrival a year ago. It’s spewing some 300 kg of water vapour every second now, compared to just 300 g per second upon arrival. That equates to two bathtubs per second now in Aug. 2015 vs. two small glasses of water per second in Aug. 2014.

Besides gas, 1000 kg of dust per second is simultaneously erupting from the nucleus, “creating dangerous working conditions for Rosetta,” says ESA.

“In recent days, we have been forced to move even further away from the comet. We’re currently at a distance of between 325 km and 340 km this week, in a region where Rosetta’s startrackers can operate without being confused by excessive dust levels – without them working properly, Rosetta can’t position itself in space,” comments Sylvain Lodiot, ESA’s spacecraft operations manager, in an ESA statement.

Here’s an OSIRIS image taken just hours prior to perihelion, that’s included in the lead animation of this story.

OSIRIS NAC image of Comet 67P/C-G taken on 12 August 2015 at 17:35 GMT. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
OSIRIS NAC image of Comet 67P/C-G taken on 12 August 2015 at 17:35 GMT. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

The period of the comet’s peak intensity, as seen in all these images, is expected to continue past perihelion for several weeks at least and fulfils the dreams of a scientific goldmine for all the research teams and hundreds of researchers involved with Rosetta and Philae.

“Activity will remain high like this for many weeks, and we’re certainly looking forward to seeing how many more jets and outburst events we catch in the act, as we have already witnessed in the last few weeks,” says Nicolas Altobelli, acting Rosetta project scientist.

And Rosetta still has lots of fuel, and just as important – funding – to plus up its ground breaking science discoveries.

ESA recently granted Rosetta a 9 month mission extension to continue its research activities as well as having been given the chance to accomplish one final and daring historic challenge.

Engineers will attempt to boldly go and land the probe on the undulating surface of the comet.

Officials with the European Space Agency (ESA) gave the “GO” on June 23 saying “The adventure continues” for Rosetta to march forward with mission operations until the end of September 2016.

If all continues to go well “the spacecraft will most likely be landed on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko” said ESA.

ESA Philae lander approaches comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November 2014 as imaged from Rosetta orbiter after deployment and during seven hour long approach for 1st ever  touchdown on a comets surface.  Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA - Composition by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA Philae lander approaches comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November 2014 as imaged from Rosetta orbiter after deployment and during seven hour long approach for 1st ever touchdown on a comets surface. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA – Composition by Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

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

Ken Kremer

Jets of gas and dust are blasting from the active neck of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in this photo mosaic assembled from four images taken on 26 September 2014 by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 26.3 kilometers (16 miles) from the center of the comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Jets of gas and dust are blasting from the active neck of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in this photo mosaic assembled from four images taken on 26 September 2014 by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 26.3 kilometers (16 miles) from the center of the comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Help Researchers Track Comet 67/P Through Perihelion

Calling all light-bucket scope owners: the folks at the European Space Agency want to enlist you in the quest to monitor Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from our Earthbound perspective through perihelion later this summer.

“We are looking to bring an entire community of professional and amateur observers together,” said Rosetta Coordinator of Amateur Observations for Comet 67/P C-G Padma A. Yanamandra-Fisher in a recent press release. “When else can you observe a comet at the same time a spacecraft is viewing it at close proximity and escorting it to perihelion, and be able to correlate both sets of findings?

The Rosetta story thus far has been an amazing tale of discovery. We’ve extensively chronicled the historic approach of the Rosetta spacecraft as the rubber-duck-shaped comet grew in its view here at Universe Today. The world also held its collective breath as the Philae lander, the little washing Euro- washing machine-sized spacecraft that could, descended on to the alien surface. Heck, Philae even knocked a Kardashian out of the top trending spot worldwide, a feat in and of itself.

We also documented the Spinal Tap-esque “None more black” nature of the comet.

Image credit:
The orbit of comet 67/P Image credit: JPL/NASA

Prospects in 2015: As of this writing, Comet 67P/C-G is 1.9 AU from the Sun and closing. The ‘P’ in ‘67/P’  stands for ‘short term (less than 200 years) periodic,’ and the comet orbits the Sun once every 6.44 years. Perihelion for 67/P occurs on August 13th, 2015 when the comet reaches a distance of 1.24 AU ( 191 million kilometres) from the Sun.

Discovered in 1969 by the Kiev University’s Klim Ivanovych Churyumov while examining a photograph taken by Svetlana Gerasimenko, this is the comet’s seventh apparition. Currently shining at +18th magnitude in the constellation Aquarius, Comet 67P C-G will vault up in the early morning sky for northern hemisphere observers and cross the ecliptic plane in the last week of July, at 43 degrees elongation west of the Sun.

Image credit:
Light curve for Comet 67/P. Image credit: Seiichi Yoshida ([email protected])

The comet is expected to reach a maximum brightness of +11th magnitude near perihelion. Historically, 67P – like most comets – tend to under-perform before perihelion, only to have an energetic lingering outburst phase post-perihelion.

“With each apparition we see it (67P) behave differently.” Yanamandra-Fisher said. “These legacy data sets will aid in our knowledge of this comet, especially when used in combination with the data gathered by the Rosetta spacecraft and the new ground observations made this year.”

Image credit: Starry Night Education software
The path of 67/P through the morning sky as seen from latitude 30 degrees north. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

Time on professional scopes is always chronically in short supply, with more astronomers and targets to observe than there are telescopes available. That’s where amateur observers come in. Many private backyard observatories have instruments that would be the envy of many a major institution.  Though the press release suggests that the minimum aperture size needed to observe 67P this summer is 14-inches (35 cm), we urge 10” or 12” inch scope owners – especially those who have the latest generation of Mallincam and faint object CCD  imagers – to give it a try. We’ve seen some amazing results with these, even during quick casual observing sessions such as public star parties! The Rosetta team is looking for everything from professional grade images, to sketches and visual observations with magnitude estimations.

Of course, hunting faint comets is a daunting task at best. +10th magnitude is generally our cut-off for  ‘is interesting enough to alert the public’ in terms of novae or comets, though we’ll let 67/P ‘into the club’ due to its celebrity status.

Image credit and copyright:
Comet 67/P from June 23rd, 2014. Image credit and copyright: Efrain Morales

To add to the challenge, the comet is only visible against a dark sky during a brief pre-dawn window. You’ll need a planetarium program (we use Starry Night Pro) to generate good finder charts down to 15th magnitude or so. Keep in mind, comets also typically appear a bit fainter visually than stars of the same magnitude due to the fact that said brightness is spread out over a broad surface area.

ESA also has a great page with an ephemeris generator to help you in your 67/P quest.

“This is truly interactive science that people of all observing levels can participate in- from amateurs to professionals.” Yanamandra-Fischer said in closing.

Image credit
The orbit of comet 67/P. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Other comets to watch for in 2015 include still bright 2014 Q2 Lovejoy, C/2013 US10 Catalina, C/2014 Q1 PanSTARRS, and 19P/Borrelly.

What’ll happen as 67P approaches perihelion? Will those two gigantic lobes crack and separate as Rosetta and the world looks on? Now, I’d pay to see that!

Image credit: David Dickinson
A light bucket scope at the Bruneau Dunes observatory suitable for a faint comet quest. Image credit: David Dickinson

-Register for the Rosetta observation campaign here.