I Can’t Stop Watching This Amazing Animation from Comet 67P

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission was an ambitious one. As the first-ever space probe to rendezvous with and then orbit a comet, Rosetta and its lander (Philae) revealed a great deal about the comet 67p/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In addition to the learning things about the comet’s shape, composition and tail, the mission also captured some incredible images of the comet’s surface before it ended.

For instance, Rosetta took a series of images on June 1st, 2016, that showed what looks like a blizzard on the comet’s surface. Using these raw images (which were posted on March 22nd, 2018), twitter user landru79 created an eye-popping video that shows just what it would be like to stand on the comet’s surface. As you can see, its like standing in a blizzard on Earth, though scientists have indicated that it’s a little more complicated than that.

The video, which consists of 25 minutes worth of images taken by Rosetta’s Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS), was posted by landru79 on April 23rd, 2018. It shows the surface of 67p/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on the loop, which lends it the appearance of panning across the surface in the middle of a snowstorm.

However, according to the ESA, the effect is likely caused by three separate phenomena. For instance, the snow-like particles seen in the video are theorized to be a combination of dust from the comet itself as well as high-energy particles striking the camera. Because of OSIRIS’ charge-coupled device (CCD) – a radiation-sensing camera – even invisible particles appear like bright streaks when passing in front of it.

As for the white specks in the background, those are stars belonging to the Canis Major constellation (according to ESA senior advisor Mark McCaughrean). Since originally posting the video, landru79 has posted another GIF on Twitter (see below) that freezes the starfield in place. This makes it clearer that the comet is moving, but the stars are remaining still (at least, relative to the camera’s point of view).

And of course, the entire video has been sped up considerably for dramatic effect. According to a follow-up tweet posted by landru79, the first image was shot on June 1st, 2016 at 3.981 seconds past 17:00 (UTC) while the last one was shot at 170.17 seconds past 17:25.

Still, one cannot deny that it is both captivating and draws attention to what Rosetta the mission accomplished. The mission launched in 2004 and reached 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014. After two years of gathering data, it was deliberately crashed on its surface in 2016. And yet, years later, what it revealed is still captivating people all over the world.

Further Reading: Live Science, Gizmodo

What is the Asteroid Belt?

In the 18th century, observations made of all the known planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) led astronomers to discern a pattern in their orbits. Eventually, this led to the Titius–Bode law, which predicted the amount of space between the planets. In accordance with this law, there appeared to be a discernible gap between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and investigation into it led to a major discovery.

In addition to several larger objects being observed, astronomers began to notice countless smaller bodies also orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. This led to the creation of the term “asteroid”, as well as “Asteroid Belt” once it became clear just how many there were. Since that time, the term has entered common usage and become a mainstay of our astronomical models.

Discovery:

In 1800, hoping to resolve the issue created by the Titius-Bode Law, astronomer Baron Franz Xaver von Zach recruited 24 of his fellow astronomers into a club known as the “United Astronomical Society” (sometimes referred to the as “Stellar Police”). At the time, its ranks included famed astronomer William Herschel, who had discovered Uranus and its moons in the 1780’s.

Ironically, the first astronomer to make a discovery in this regions was Giuseppe Piazzi – the chair of astronomy at the University of Palermo – who had been asked to join the Society but had not yet received the invitation. On January 1st, 1801, Piazzi observed a tiny object in an orbit with the exact radius predicted by the Titius-Bode law.

Ceres (left, Dawn image) compared to Tethys (right, Cassini image) at comparative scale sizes. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA and NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Comparison by J. Major.)
Ceres (left, Dawn image) compared to Tethys (right, Cassini image) at comparative scale sizes. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA and NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Comparison by J. Major.

Initially he believed it to be a comet, but ongoing observations showed that it had no coma. This led Piazzi to consider that the object he had found – which he named “Ceres” after the Roman goddess of the harvest and patron of Sicily – could in fact be a planet. Fifteen months later, Heinrich Olbers ( a member of the Society) discovered a second object in the same region, which was later named 2 Pallas.

In appearance, these objects seemed indistinguishable from stars. Even under the highest telescope magnifications, they did not resolve into discs. However, their rapid movement was indicative of a shared orbit. Hence, William Herschel suggested that they be placed into a separate category called “asteroids” – Greek for “star-like”.

By 1807, further investigation revealed two new objects in the region, 3 Juno and 4 Vesta; and by 1845, 5 Astraea was found. Shortly thereafter, new objects were found at an accelerating rate, and by the early 1850s the term “asteroids” gradually came into common use. So too did the term “Asteroid Belt”, though it is unclear who coined that particular term. However, the term “Main Belt” is often used to distinguish it from the Kuiper Belt.

One hundred asteroids had been located by mid-1868, and in 1891 the introduction of astrophotography by Max Wolf accelerated the rate of discovery even further. A total of 1,000 asteroids were found by 1921, 10,000 by 1981, and 100,000 by 2000. Modern asteroid survey systems now use automated means to locate new minor planets in ever-increasing quantities.

The asteroids of the inner Solar System and Jupiter: The donut-shaped asteroid belt is located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The asteroids of the inner Solar System and Jupiter: The donut-shaped asteroid belt is located between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Structure:

Despite common perceptions, the Asteroid Belt is mostly empty space, with the asteroids spread over a large volume of space. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of asteroids are currently known, and the total number ranges in the millions or more. Over 200 asteroids are known to be larger than 100 km in diameter, and a survey in the infrared wavelengths has shown that the asteroid belt has 0.7–1.7 million asteroids with a diameter of 1 km or more.

Located between Mars and Jupiter, the belt ranges from 2.2 to 3.2 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun and is 1 AU thick. It’s total mass is estimated to be 2.8×1021 to 3.2×1021 kilograms – which is equivalent to about 4% of the Moon’s mass. The four largest objects – Ceres, 4 Vesta, 2 Pallas, and 10 Hygiea – account for half of the belt’s total mass, with almost one-third accounted for by Ceres alone.

The main (or core) population of the asteroid belt is sometimes divided into three zones, which are based on what is known as Kirkwood gaps. Named after Daniel Kirkwood, who announced in 1866 the discovery of gaps in the distance of asteroids, these describe the dimensions of an asteroid’s orbit based on its semi-major axis.

Zone I lies between the 4:1 resonance and 3:1 resonance Kirkwood gaps, which are 2.06 and 2.5 AU from the Sun respectively. Zone II continues from the end of Zone I out to the 5:2 resonance gap, which is 2.82 AU from the Sun. Zone III extends from the outer edge of Zone II to the 2:1 resonance gap at 3.28 AU.

The asteroid belt may also be divided into the inner and outer belts, with the inner belt formed by asteroids orbiting nearer to Mars than the 3:1 Kirkwood gap (2.5 AU), and the outer belt formed by those asteroids closer to Jupiter’s orbit.

The asteroids that have a radius of 2.06 AU from the Sun can be considered the inner boundary of the asteroid belt. Perturbations by Jupiter send bodies straying there into unstable orbits. Most bodies formed inside the radius of this gap were swept up by Mars (which has an aphelion at 1.67 AU) or ejected by its gravitational perturbations in the early history of the Solar System.

The temperature of the Asteroid Belt varies with the distance from the Sun. For dust particles within the belt, typical temperatures range from 200 K (-73 °C) at 2.2 AU down to 165 K (-108 °C) at 3.2 AU. However, due to rotation, the surface temperature of an asteroid can vary considerably as the sides are alternately exposed to solar radiation and then to the stellar background.

Composition:

Most asteroids are composed of rock, but a small portion of them contain metals such as iron and nickel. The remaining asteroids are made up of a mix of these, along with carbon-rich materials. Some of the more distant asteroids tend to contain more ices and volatiles, which includes water ice.

Vesta seen from the Earth-orbit based Hubble Space Telescope in 2007 (left) and up close with the Dawn spacecraft in 2011. Hubble Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. McFadden (University of Maryland). Dawn Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Photo Combination: Elizabeth Howell
Vesta seen from the Earth-orbit based Hubble Space Telescope in 2007 (left) and up close with the Dawn spacecraft in 2011. Hubble Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. McFadden (University of Maryland). Dawn Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Photo Combination: Elizabeth Howell

The Belt consists primarily of three categories of asteroids: C-type, or carbonaceous asteroids; S-type, or silicate asteroids; and M-type, or metallic asteroids. Carbonaceous asteroids are carbon-rich, dominate the belt’s outer regions, and comprise over 75% of the visible asteroids. Their surface composition is similar to that of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites, and their spectra matches the primordial composition of the early Solar System.

S-type (silicate-rich) asteroids are more common toward the inner region of the belt, within 2.5 AU of the Sun. These are typically composed of silicates and some metals, but not a significant amount of carbonaceous compounds. This indicates that their materials have been modified significantly over time, most likely through melting and reformation.

M-type (metal-rich) asteroids form about 10% of the total population, and are composed of iron-nickel and some silicate compounds. Some are believed to have originated from the metallic cores of differentiated asteroids, which were then fragmented from collisions. Within the asteroid belt, the distribution of these types of asteroids peaks at a semi-major axis of about 2.7 AU from the Sun.

There’s also the mysterious and relatively rare V-type (or basaltic) asteroids. This group takes their name from the fact that until 2001, most basaltic bodies in the Asteroid Belt were believed to have originated from the asteroid Vesta. However, the discovery of basaltic asteroids with different chemical compositions suggests a different origin. Current theories of asteroid formation predict that the V-type asteroids should be more plentiful, but 99% of those predicted appear to be missing.

Families and Groups:

Approximately one-third of the asteroids in the asteroid belt are members of an asteroid family. These are based on similarities in orbital elements – such as semi-major axis, eccentricity, orbital inclinations, and similar spectral features, all of which indicate a common origin. Most likely, this is believed to have involve collisions between larger objects (with a mean radius of ~10 km) that then broke up into smaller bodies.

This artist's conception shows how families of asteroids are created. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s conception shows how families of asteroids are created. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some of the most prominent families in the asteroid belt are the Flora, Eunoma, Koronis, Eos, and Themis families. The Flora family, one of the largest with more than 800 known members, may have formed from a collision less than a billion years ago. Located within the inner region of the Belt, this family is made up of S-type asteroids and accounts for roughly 4-5% of all Belt objects.

The Eunomia family is another large grouping of S-type asteroids, which takes its name from the Greek goddess Eunomia (goddess of law and good order). It is the most prominent family in the intermediate asteroid belt, and accounts for 5% of all asteroids.

The Koronis family consists of 300 known asteroids which are thought to have been formed at least billion years ago by a collision. The largest known, 208 Lacrimosa, is about 41 km (25 mi) in diameter, while an additional 20 more have been found that are larger than 25 km in diameter.

The Eos (or Eoan) family is a prominent family of asteroids that orbit the Sun at distance of 2.96 – 3.03 AUs, and are believed to have formed from a collision 1-2 billion years ago. It consists of 4,400 known members that resemble the S-type asteroid category. However, examination of Eos and other family members in the infrared show some differences with the S-type, thus why they have their own category (K-type asteroids).

Asteroids we've seen up close show cratered surfaces similar to yet different from much of the cratering on comets. Credit: NASA
Asteroids we’ve seen up close show cratered surfaces similar to yet different from much of the cratering on comets. Credit: NASA

The Themis asteroid family is found in the outer portion of the asteroid belt, at a mean distance of 3.13 AU from the Sun.  This core group includes  the asteroid 24 Themis (for which it is named), and is one of the more populous asteroid families. It is made up of C-type asteroids with a composition believed to be similar to that of carbonaceous chondrites, and consists of a well-defined core of larger asteroids and a surrounding region of smaller ones.

The largest asteroid to be a true member of a family is 4 Vesta. The Vesta family is believed to have formed as the result of a crater-forming impact on Vesta. Likewise, the HED meteorites may also have originated from Vesta as a result of this collision.

Along with the asteroid bodies, the asteroid belt also contains bands of dust with particle radii of up to a few hundred micrometres. This fine material is produced, at least in part, from collisions between asteroids, and by the impact of micrometeorites upon the asteroids. Three prominent bands of dust have been found within the asteroid belt – which have similar orbital inclinations as the Eos, Koronis, and Themis asteroid families – and so are possibly associated with those groupings.

Origin:

Originally, the Asteroid Belt was thought to be the remnants of a much larger planet that occupied the region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. This theory was originally suggested by Heinrich Olbders to William Herschel as a possible explanation for the existence of Ceres and Pallas. However, this hypothesis has since fallen out of favor for a number of reasons.

Artist's impression of the early Solar System, where collision between particles in an accretion disc led to the formation of planetesimals and eventually planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s impression of the early Solar System, where collision between particles in an accretion disc led to the formation of planetesimals and eventually planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

First, there is the amount of energy it would have required to destroy a planet, which would have been staggering. Second, there is the fact that the entire mass of the Belt is only 4% that of the Moon.  Third, the significant chemical differences between the asteroids do not point towards them having been once part of a single planet.

Today, the scientific consensus is that, rather than fragmenting from a progenitor planet, the asteroids are remnants from the early Solar System that never formed a planet at all. During the first few million years of the Solar System’s history, when gravitational accretion led to the formation of the planets, clumps of matter in an accretion disc coalesced to form planetesimals. These in turn came together to form planets.

However, within the region of the Asteroid Belt, planestesimals were too strongly perturbed by Jupiter’s gravity to form a planet. These objects would therefore continue to orbit the Sun as before, occasionally colliding and producing smaller fragments and dust.

During the early history of the Solar System, the asteroids also melted to some degree, allowing elements within them to be partially or completely differentiated by mass. However, this period would have been necessarily brief due to their relatively small size, and likely ended about 4.5 billion years ago, in the first tens of millions of years of the Solar System’s formation.

Though they are dated to the early history of the Solar System, the asteroids (as they are today) are not samples of its primordial self. They have undergone considerable evolution since their formation, including internal heating, surface melting from impacts, space weathering from radiation, and bombardment by micrometeorites. Hence, the Asteroid Belt today is believed to contain only a small fraction of the mass of the primordial belt.

Computer simulations suggest that the original asteroid belt may have contained mass equivalent to the Earth. Primarily because of gravitational perturbations, most of the material was ejected from the belt a million years after its formation, leaving behind less than 0.1% of the original mass. Since then, the size distribution of the asteroid belt is believed to have remained relatively stable.

When the asteroid belt was first formed, the temperatures at a distance of 2.7 AU from the Sun formed a “snow line” below the freezing point of water. Essentially, planetesimals formed beyond this radius were able to accumulate ice, some of which may have provided a water source of Earth’s oceans (even more so than comets).

Exploration:

The asteroid belt is so thinly populated that several unmanned spacecraft have been able to move through it; either as part of a long-range mission to the outer Solar System, or (in recent years) as a mission to study larger Asteroid Belt objects. In fact, due to the low density of materials within the Belt, the odds of a probe running into an asteroid are now estimated at less than one in a billion.

Artist's concept of the Dawn spacecraft arriving at Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept of the Dawn spacecraft arriving at Vesta. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The first spacecraft to make a journey through the asteroid belt was the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, which entered the region on July 16th, 1972. As part of a mission to Jupiter, the craft successfully navigated through the Belt and conducted a flybys of Jupiter (which culminated in December of 1973) before becoming the first spacecraft to achieve escape velocity from the Solar System.

At the time, there were concerns that the debris would pose a hazard to the Pioneer 10 space probe. But since that mission, 11 additional spacecraft passed through the Asteroid Belt without incident. These included Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and 2, Ulysses, Galileo, NEAR, Cassini, Stardust, New Horizons, the ESA’s Rosetta, and most recently, the Dawn spacecraft.

For the most part, these missions were part of missions to the outer Solar System, where opportunities to photograph and study asteroids were brief. Only the Dawn, NEAR and JAXA’s Hayabusa missions have studied asteroids for a protracted period in orbit and at the surface. Dawn explored Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012, and is currently orbiting Ceres (and sending back many interesting pictures of its surface features).

And someday, if all goes well, humanity might even be in a position to begin mining the asteroid belt for resources – such as precious metals, minerals, and volatiles. These resources could mined be from an asteroid and then used in space of in-situ utilization (i.e. turning them into construction materials and rocket propellant), or brought back to Earth.

It is even possible that humanity might one day colonize larger asteroids and establish outposts throughout the Belt. In the meantime, there’s still plenty of exploring left to do, and quite possibly millions more objects out there to study.

We have written many articles about the asteroid belt for Universe Today. Here’s Where Do Asteroids Come From?, Why the Asteroid Belt Doesn’t Threaten Spacecraft, and Why isn’t the Asteroid Belt a Planet?.

Also, be sure to learn which is the Largest Asteroid in the Solar System, and about the asteroid named after Leonard Nimoy. And here’s 10 Interesting Facts about Asteroids.

We also have many interesting articles about the Dawn spacecraft’s mission to Vesta and Ceres, and asteroid mining.

To learn more, check out NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Science Page on asteroids, and the Hubblesite’s News Releases about Asteroids.

Astronomy Cast also some interesting episodes about asteroids, like Episode 55: The Asteroid Belt and Episode 29: Asteroids Make Bad Neighbors.

References:
NASA: The Asteroid Belt
NASA: Asteroid

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

Rosetta Orbiter Approved for Extended Mission and Bold Comet Landing

Rosetta will attempt comet landing
This single frame Rosetta navigation camera image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken on 15 June 2015 from a distance of 207 km from the comet centre. The image has a resolution of 17.7 m/pixel and measures 18.1 km across. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0 [/caption]

Europe’s history making Rosetta cometary spacecraft has been granted a nine month mission extension to plus up its bountiful science discoveries as well as been given the chance to accomplish one final and daring historic challenge, as engineers attempt to boldly go and land the probe on the undulating surface of the comet its currently orbiting.

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 to the unabashed glee of the scientists and engineers responsible for leading Rosetta and reaping the rewards of nearly a year of groundbreaking research since the probe arrived at comet 67P in August 2014.

“This is fantastic news for science,” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta Project Scientist, in a statement.

It will take about 3 months for Rosetta to spiral down to the surface.

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 on Aug. 6, 2014 for history’s first ever attempt to orbit a comet for long term study.

Since then, Rosetta deployed the piggybacked Philae landing craft to accomplish history’s first ever touchdown on a comets nucleus on November 12, 2014. It has also orbited the comet for over 10 months of up close observation, coming at times to as close as 8 kilometers. It is equipped with a suite 11 instruments to analyze every facet of the comet’s nature and environment.

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

Currently, Comet 67P is still becoming more and more active as it orbits closer and closer to the sun over the next two months. The mission extension will enable researchers to a far greater period of time to compare the comets activity, physical and chemical properties and evolution ‘before and after’ they arrive at perihelion some six weeks from today.

The pair reach perihelion on August 13, 2015 at a distance of 186 million km from the Sun, between the orbits of Earth and Mars.

“We’ll be able to monitor the decline in the comet’s activity as we move away from the Sun again, and we’ll have the opportunity to fly closer to the comet to continue collecting more unique data. By comparing detailed ‘before and after’ data, we’ll have a much better understanding of how comets evolve during their lifetimes.”

Because the comet is nearly at its peak of outgassing and dust spewing activity, Rosetta must observe the comet from a stand off distance, while still remaining at a close proximity, to avoid damage to the probe and its instruments.

Furthermore, the Philae lander “awoke” earlier this month after entering a sven month hibernation period after successfully compleing some 60 hours of science observations from the surface.

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

As the comet again edges away from the sun and becomes less active, the team will attempt to land Rosetta on comet 67P before it runs out of fuel and the energy produced from the huge solar panels is insufficient to continue mission operations.

“This time, as we’re riding along next to the comet, the most logical way to end the mission is to set Rosetta down on the surface,” says Patrick Martin, Rosetta Mission Manager.

“But there is still a lot to do to confirm that this end-of-mission scenario is possible. We’ll first have to see what the status of the spacecraft is after perihelion and how well it is performing close to the comet, and later we will have to try and determine where on the surface we can have a touchdown.”

During the extended mission, the team will use the experience gained in operating Rosetta in the challenging cometary environment to carry out some new and potentially slightly riskier investigations, including flights across the night-side of the comet to observe the plasma, dust, and gas interactions in this region, and to collect dust samples ejected close to the nucleus, says ESA.

Rosetta’s lander Philae has returned the first panoramic image from the surface of a comet. The view as it has been captured by the CIVA-P imaging system, shows a 360º view around the point of final touchdown. The three feet of Philae’s landing gear can be seen in some of the frames.  Superimposed on top of the image is a sketch of the Philae lander in the configuration the lander team currently believe it is in.  The view has been processed to show further details.   Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA. Post processing: Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Rosetta’s lander Philae has returned the first panoramic image from the surface of a comet. The view as it has been captured by the CIVA-P imaging system, shows a 360º view around the point of final touchdown. The three feet of Philae’s landing gear can be seen in some of the frames. Superimposed on top of the image is a sketch of the Philae lander in the configuration the lander team currently believe it is in. The view has been processed to show further details. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA. Post processing: Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

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

Ken Kremer

………….

Learn more about Rosetta, SpaceX, Europa, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Jun 25-28: “SpaceX launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

This single frame Rosetta navigation camera image was taken from a distance of 77.8 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 22 March 2015. The image has a resolution of 6.6 m/pixel and measures 6 x 6 km. The image is cropped and processed to bring out the details of the comet’s activity. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
This single frame Rosetta navigation camera image was taken from a distance of 77.8 km from the centre of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 22 March 2015. The image has a resolution of 6.6 m/pixel and measures 6 x 6 km. The image is cropped and processed to bring out the details of the comet’s activity. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Rosetta Discovery of Surprise Molecular Breakup Mechanism in Comet Coma Alters Perceptions

A NASA science instrument flying aboard the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft has made a very surprising discovery – namely that the molecular breakup mechanism of “water and carbon dioxide molecules spewing from the comet’s surface” into the atmosphere of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is caused by “electrons close to the surface.”

The surprising results relating to the emission of the comet coma came from measurements gathered by the probes NASA funded Alice instrument and is causing scientists to completely rethink what we know about the wandering bodies, according to the instruments science team.

“The discovery we’re reporting is quite unexpected,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for the Alice instrument at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, in a statement.

“It shows us the value of going to comets to observe them up close, since this discovery simply could not have been made from Earth or Earth orbit with any existing or planned observatory. And, it is fundamentally transforming our knowledge of comets.”

A paper reporting the Alice findings has been accepted for publication by the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, according to statements from NASA and ESA.

Alice is a spectrograph that focuses on sensing the far-ultraviolet wavelength band and is the first instrument of its kind to operate at a comet.

Until now it had been thought that photons from the sun were responsible for causing the molecular breakup, said the team.

The carbon dioxide and water are being released from the nucleus and the excitation breakup occurs barely half a mile above the comet’s nucleus.

“Analysis of the relative intensities of observed atomic emissions allowed the Alice science team to determine the instrument was directly observing the “parent” molecules of water and carbon dioxide that were being broken up by electrons in the immediate vicinity, about six-tenths of a mile (one kilometer) from the comet’s nucleus.”

The excitation mechanism is detailed in the graphic below.

Rosetta’s continued close study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has revealed an unexpected process at work close to the comet nucleus that causes the rapid breakup of water and carbon dioxide molecules.   Credits: ESA/ATG medialab; ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
Rosetta’s continued close study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has revealed an unexpected process at work close to the comet nucleus that causes the rapid breakup of water and carbon dioxide molecules. Credits: ESA/ATG medialab; ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA; ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

“The spatial variation of the emissions along the slit indicates that the excitation occurs within a few hundred meters of the surface and the gas and dust production are correlated,” according to the Astronomy and Astrophysics journal paper.

The data shows that the water and CO2 molecules break up via a two-step process.

“First, an ultraviolet photon from the Sun hits a water molecule in the comet’s coma and ionises it, knocking out an energetic electron. This electron then hits another water molecule in the coma, breaking it apart into two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, and energising them in the process. These atoms then emit ultraviolet light that is detected at characteristic wavelengths by Alice.”

“Similarly, it is the impact of an electron with a carbon dioxide molecule that results in its break-up into atoms and the observed carbon emissions.”

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 on Aug. 6, 2014 for history’s first ever attempt to orbit a comet for long term study.

Since then, Rosetta deployed the Philae landing craft to accomplish history’s first ever touchdown on a comets nucleus. It has also orbited the comet for over 10 months of up close observation, coming at times to as close as 8 kilometers. It is equipped with a suite 11 instruments to analyze every facet of the comet’s nature and environment.

Comet 67P is still becoming more and more active as it orbits closer and closer to the sun over the next two months. The pair reach perihelion on August 13, 2015 at a distance of 186 million km from the Sun, between the orbits of Earth and Mars.

Alice works by examining light emitted from the comet to understand the chemistry of the comet’s atmosphere, or coma and determine the chemical composition with the far-ultraviolet spectrograph.

According to the measurements from Alice, the water and carbon dioxide in the comet’s atmospheric coma originate from plumes erupting from its surface.

“It is similar to those that the Hubble Space Telescope discovered on Jupiter’s moon Europa, with the exception that the electrons at the comet are produced by solar radiation, while the electrons at Europa come from Jupiter’s magnetosphere,” said Paul Feldman, an Alice co-investigator from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, in a statement.

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
Rosetta discovered an unexpected process at comet nucleus that causes the rapid breakup of water and carbon dioxide molecules. 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

Other instruments aboard Rosetta including MIRO, ROSINA and VIRTIS, which study relative abundances of coma constituents, corroborate the Alice findings.

“These early results from Alice demonstrate how important it is to study a comet at different wavelengths and with different techniques, in order to probe various aspects of the comet environment,” says ESA’s Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor, in a statement.

“We’re actively watching how the comet evolves as it moves closer to the Sun along its orbit towards perihelion in August, seeing how the plumes become more active due to solar heating, and studying the effects of the comet’s interaction with the solar wind.”

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

Ken Kremer

What is Lunar Regolith?

When you’re walking around on soft ground, do you notice how your feet leave impressions? Perhaps you’ve tracked some of the looser earth in your yard into the house on occasion? If you were to pick up some of these traces – what we refer to as dirt or soil – and examine them beneath a microscope, what would you see?

Essentially, you would be seeing the components of what is known as regolith, which is a collection of particles of dust, soil, broken rock, and other materials found here on Earth. But interestingly enough, this same basic material can be found in other terrestrial environments as well – including the Moon, Mars, other planets, and even asteroids.

Definition:

The term regolith refers to any layer of material covering solid rock, which can come in the form of dust, soil or broken rock. The word is derived from the combination of two Greek words – rhegos (which means “blanket”) and lithos (which means “rock).

Earth:

On Earth, regolith takes the form of dirt, soil, sand, and other components that are formed as a result of natural weathering and biological processes. Due to a combination of erosion, alluvial deposits (i.e. moving water deposing sand), volcanic eruptions, or tectonic activity, the material is slowly ground down and laid out over solid bedrock.

central Yilgarn Craton, Western Australia.
Picture of Mt Magnet in the Central Yilgarn Craton in Western Australia, which dates to the Precambrian Era. Credit: geomorphologie.revues.org

It can be made up of clays, silicates, various minerals, groundwater, and organic molecules. Regolith on Earth can vary from being essentially absent to being hundreds of meters thick. Its can also be very young (in the form of ash, alluvium, or lava rock that was just deposited) to hundreds of millions of years old (regolith dating to the Precambrian age occurs in parts of Australia).

On Earth, the presence of regolith is one of the important factors for most life, since few plants can grow on or within solid rock and animals would be unable to burrow or build shelter without loose material. Regolith is also important for human beings since it has been used since the dawn of civilization (in the form of mud bricks, concrete and ceramics) to build houses, roads, and other civil works.

The difference in terminology between “soil” (aka. dirt, mud, etc.) and “sand” is the presence of organic materials. In the former, it exists in abundance, and is what separates regolith on Earth from most other terrestrial environments in our Solar System.

The Moon:

The surface of the Moon is covered with a fine powdery material that scientists refer to it as “lunar regolith”. Nearly the entire lunar surface is covered with regolith, and bedrock is only visible on the walls of very steep craters.

Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft, across a sea of lunar soil. Credit: NASA

The Moon regolith was formed over billions of years by constant meteorite impacts on the surface of the Moon. Scientists estimate that the lunar regolith extends down 4-5 meters in some places, and even as deep as 15 meters in the older highland areas.

When the plans were put together for the Apollo missions, some scientists were concerned that the lunar regolith would be too light and powdery to support the weight of the lunar lander. Instead of landing on the surface, they were worried that the lander would just sink down into it like a snowbank.

However, landings performed by robotic Surveyor spacecraft showed that the lunar soil was firm enough to support a spacecraft, and astronauts later explained that the surface of the Moon felt very firm beneath their feet. During the Apollo landings, the astronauts often found it necessary to use a hammer to drive a core sampling tool into it.

Once astronauts reached the surface, they reported that the fine moon dust stuck to their spacesuits and then dusted the inside of the lunar lander. The astronauts also claimed that it got into their eyes, making them red; and worse, even got into their lungs, giving them coughs. Lunar dust is very abrasive, and has been noted for its ability to wear down spacesuits and electronics.

Alan Bean Takes Lunar Soil Sample
Alan Bean takes a sample of lunar regolith during the Apollo 12 mission. Credit: NASA

The reason for this is because lunar regolith is sharp and jagged. This is due to the fact that the Moon has no atmosphere or flowing water on it, and hence no natural weathering process. When the micro-meteoroids slammed into the surface and created all the particles, there was no process for wearing down its sharp edges.

The term lunar soil is often used interchangeably with “lunar regolith”, but some have argued that the term “soil” is not correct because it is defined as having organic content. However, standard usage among lunar scientists tends to ignore that distinction. “Lunar dust” is also used, but mainly to refer to even finer materials than lunar soil.

As NASA is working on plans to send humans back to the Moon in the coming years, researchers are working to learn the best ways to work with the lunar regolith. Future colonists could mine minerals, water, and even oxygen out of the lunar soil, and use it to manufacture bases with as well.

Mars:

Landers and rovers that have been sent to Mars by NASA, the Russians and the ESA have returned many interesting photographs, showing a landscape that is covered with vast expanses of sand and dust, as well as rocks and boulders.

A successful scoop of Martian regolith (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute)
A successful scoop of Martian regolith performed by NASA’s Phoenix lander. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute

Compared to lunar regolith, Mars dust is very fine and enough remains suspended in the atmosphere to give the sky a reddish hue. The dust is occasionally picked up in vast planet-wide dust storms, which are quite slow due to the very low density of the atmosphere.

The reason why Martian regolith is so much finer than that found on the Moon is attributed to the flowing water and river valleys that once covered its surface. Mars researchers are currently studying whether or not martian regolith is still being shaped in the present epoch as well.

It is believed that large quantities of water and carbon dioxide ices remain frozen within the regolith, which would be of use if and when manned missions (and even colonization efforts) take place in the coming decades.

Mars moon of Deimos is also covered by a layer of regolith that is estimated to be 50 meters (160 feet) thick. Images provided by the Viking 2 orbiter confirmed its presence from a height of 30 km (19 miles) above the moon’s surface.

Asteroids and Outer Solar System:

The only other planet in our Solar System that is known to have regolith is Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The surface is known for its extensive fields of dunes, though the precise origin of them are not known. Some scientists have suggested that they may be small fragments of water ice eroded by Titan’s liquid methane, or possibly particulate organic matter that formed in Titan’s atmosphere and rained down on the surface.

Another possibility is that a series of powerful wind reversals, which occur twice during a single Saturn year (30 Earth years), are responsible for forming these dunes, which measure several hundred meters high and stretch across hundreds of kilometers.  Currently, Earth scientists are still not certain what Titan’s regolith is composed of.

Data returned by the Huygens Probe’s penetrometer indicated that the surface may be clay-like, but long-term analysis of the data has suggested that it may be composed of sand-like ice grains.  The images taken by the probe upon landing on the moon’s surface show a flat plain covered in rounded pebbles, which may be made of water ice, and suggest the action of moving fluids on them.

Asteroids have been observed to have regolith on their surfaces as well. These are the result of meteoriod impacts that have taken place over the course of millions of years, pulverizing their surfaces and creating dust and tiny particles that are carried within the craters.

False color picture of Eros' 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) surface crater, showing regolith inside. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL
False color picture taken by NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker camera of Eros’ 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) surface crater, showing the presence of regolith inside. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL

NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft produced evidence of regolith on the surface of the asteroid 433 Eros, which remains the best images of asteroid regolith to date. Additional evidence has been provided by JAXA’s Hayabusa mission, which returned clear images of regolith on an asteroid that was thought to be too small to hold onto it.

Images provided by the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) cameras on board the Rosetta Spacecraft confirmed that the asteroid 21 Lutetia has a layer of regolith near its north pole, which was seen to flow in major landslides associated with variations in the asteriod’s albedo.

To break it down succinctly, wherever there is rock, there is likely to be regolith. Whether it is the product of wind or flowing water, or the presence of meteors impacting the surface, good old fashioned “dirt” can be found just about anywhere in our Solar System; and most likely, in the universe beyond…

We’ve done several articles about the Moon’s regolith here on Universe Today. Here’s a way astronauts might be able to extract water from lunar regolith with simple kitchen appliances, and an article about NASA’s search for a lunar digger.

Want to buy some lunar regolith simulant? Here’s a site that lets you buy it. Do you want to be a Moon miner? There’s lots of good metal in that lunar regolith.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

Reference:
NASA

Concerns over ESA’s Data Release Policy Amidst Rosetta Comet Landing

This week, history was made as the Rosetta mission’s Philae lander touched down on the surface of 67P/Churnyumov-Gerasimenko. Days before this momentous event took place, the science team presented some staggering pictures of the comet at a planetary conference in Tucson, Arizona, where guests were treated to the first color images taken by the spacecraft’s high-resolution camera.

Unfortunately for millions of space enthusiasts around the world, none of these exciting images were released to the public. In addition, much of the images taken of the comet over the past few months as Rosetta closed in on it have similarly not been released. This has led to demands for more openness, which in turn has focused attention on ESA’s image and data release policy.

Allowing scientists to withhold data for some period of time is not uncommon in planetary science. According to Jim Green, the director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, a 6-month grace period is typical for principal investigator-led spacecraft. However, NASA headquarters can also insist that the principal investigator release data for key media events.

This has certainly been the case where the Curiosity and other Mars rover missions were concerned, not to mention the Cassini-Huygens mission. On many occasions, NASA chose to release images to the public almost immediately after they were obtained.

However, ESA has a different structure than NASA. It relies much more on contributions from member-states, whereas NASA pays for most of its instruments directly. Rosetta’s main mission camera – the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) – was developed by a consortium of institutes led by the Max-Planck-Institute for Solar System Research. As a result, ESA has less control over how information obtained by this specific camera is disseminated.

The surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as viewed at a 10-kilometer distance by navigation cameras. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam
The surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as viewed at a 10-kilometer distance by navigation cameras. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam

Journalist Eric Hand recently covered this imagery release dilemma in an article in Science, revealing that even scientists at Darmstadt, Germany this week — the location of ESA’s mission control for Philae’s landing — had not seen the science images that were being shared at the Planetary Science conference. Project scientist Matt Taylor was reduced to learning about the new results by looking at Twitter feeds on his phone.

Hand quoted Taylor as saying the decision when to publicly release images is a “tightrope” walk. And Hand also said some “ESA officials are worried that the principal investigators for the spacecraft’s 11 instruments are not releasing enough information, and many members of the international community feel the same way.”

Back in July, ESA responded to these calls for more information with a press release, in which they claimed that an “open-data” policy is not the norm for either ESA or NASA. Responding to the examples of the Mars rovers and Cassini-Huygens, which have been cited by critics for more openness, ESA countered with the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray observatory, the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, and even some NASA Mars orbiters.

In these cases, they claimed, the data obtained was subject to a “proprietary period”, which also pertains to data from ESA’s Mars Express, XMM-Newton, and Rosetta missions. This period, they said, is typically 6-12 months, and “gives exclusive access to the scientists who built the instruments or to scientists who made a winning proposal to make certain observations.”

Nevertheless, there is still some criticism by those who think that releasing more images would be a positive gesture and not compromise any ESA scientist’s ability to conduct research.

As space blogger Daniel Fischer said in response to the ESA press release, “Who is writing scientific papers already about the distant nucleus that is just turning into a shape? And on the weekly schedule a sampling of these images is coming out anyway, with a few days delay… Presenting the approach images, say, one per day and with only hours delay would thus not endanger any priorities but instead give the eager public a unique chance to ‘join the ride’, just as they can with Cassini or the Mars rovers.”

The Rosetta Spacecraft's instruments. Image Credit: ESA
The Rosetta Spacecraft’s instruments. Image Credit: ESA

In particular, a lot of criticism has been focused on the OSIRIS camera team, led by principal investigator Holger Sierks. Days before the Philae Lander put down on the comet, Stuart Atkinson – an amateur astronomer, space educator and image processor – wrote the following on his space blog Cumbrian Sky:

[The OSIRIS team’s] attitude towards the public, the media, and ESA itself has been one of arrogant contempt, and I have no doubt at all that their selfish behaviour has damaged the mission and the reputation and public image ESA. Their initial arguments that they had to keep images back to allow them to do their research no longer hold up now. They must have taken many hundreds of jaw droppingly detailed images by now, the images everyone has been looking forward to ever since ROSETTA launched a decade ago, so could easily release dozens of images which pose no risk to their work or careers, but they have released only a handful, and those have been the least-detailed, least-remarkable images they could find.

However, in Hand’s Science article, Sierks said that he feels the OSIRIS team has already provided a fair amount of data to the public. Currently, about one image is released a week –  a rate that seems to Sierks to be more than adequate given that they are superior to anything before seen in terms of comet research.

Furthermore, Sierks claimed that other researchers, unaffiliated with the Rosetta team, have submitted papers based on these released images, while his team has been consumed with the daily task of planning the mission. After working on OSIRIS since 1997, Sierks feels that his team should get the first shot at using the data.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image Credit: ESA
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image Credit: ESA

This echoes ESA’s July press release, which expressed support for their science teams to have first-crack any data obtained by their instruments. “Because no-one has ever been to 67P/C-G before,” it stated, “each new piece of data from Rosetta has the potential for a scientific discovery. It’s only fair that the instrument science teams have the first chance to make and assess those discoveries.”

The same press release also defended ESA’s decision not to release information from the navigation cameras more freely – which they do have control over. Citing overlap, they indicated that they want to “avoid undermining the priority of the OSIRIS team.”

Prior to Rosetta’s launch in 2004, an embargo of 6 months was set for all the instrument teams. ESA scientists have pointed out that mission documents also stipulate that instrument teams provide “adequate support” to ESA management in its communication efforts.

Mark McCaughrean, an ESA senior science adviser at ESTEC, is one official that believes these support requirements are not being met. He was quoted by Eric Hand in Science as saying, “I believe that [the OSIRIS camera team’s support] has by no means been adequate, and they believe it has,” he says. “But they hold the images, and it’s a completely asymmetric relationship.”

Luckily, ESA has released images of the surface of 67P and what it looked like for the Philae Lander and as it made its descent towards the comet. Additionally, stunning imagery from Rosetta’s navigation camera were recently released. In the coming days and weeks, we can certainly hope that plenty of more interesting images and exciting finds will be coming, courtesy of the Rosetta mission and its many contributors.

Further Reading: Science Mag, NASA, ESA