Weekly Space Hangout – Sept 23, 2016: Dr. Frank Timmes and Online Astronomy Education

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guests:
Dr. Frank Timmes is an astrophysicist at Arizona State University and will be discussing online astronomy education and the Global Freshman Academy. His interests include the universe’s evolving composition and its implications for life in the universe. Dr. Timmes’ current area of research is nuclear astrophysics and the creation of the periodic table.

Guests:

Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg)
Dave Dickinson (www.astroguyz.com / @astroguyz)
Kimberly Cartier ( KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)

Their stories this week:

New bill targets serial harasses

Tiangong-1 to crash next year

The Final Days of Rosetta

Microlensing circumbinary planet detected

Repeat of Voyager’s “impossible” cloud

We are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

There It Is! Philae Lander Found

The search is over, and looking at these images, no wonder it was so hard to find the little Philae lander!

The high-resolution camera on board the Rosetta spacecraft has finally spotted Philae “wedged into a dark crack on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko,” the ESA team said. They also said that now, seeing the lander’s orientation, it’s clear why establishing communications was so difficult following its landing on November 12, 2014.

Close-up of the Philae lander.  Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Close-up of the Philae lander. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Rosetta, orbiting the comet and getting ready for its own demise/touchdown on 67P, focused its OSIRIS narrow-angle camera towards a few candidate sites on September 2, 2016 as the orbiter came just 2.7 km of the comet’s surface. Clearly visible in the zoomed in versions are the main body of the lander, along with two of its three legs.

“With only a month left of the Rosetta mission, we are so happy to have finally imaged Philae, and to see it in such amazing detail,” says Cecilia Tubiana of the OSIRIS camera team, the first person to see the images when they were downlinked from Rosetta on September 4.

Tubiana told Universe Today via email that Philae wasn’t too hard to find in the images. “Philae was in hiding in shadow, and as soon as we stretched the brightness to ‘see’ into the shadow, Philae was there!”

She added that nothing else about Philae’s condition has been revealed from the images so far.

The Philae lander was last seen after it first touched down at a region called Agilkia on the odd-shaped, two-lobed comet 67P. During its dramatic touchdown, the lander flew, landed, bounced and then repeated that process for more than two hours across the surface, with three or maybe four touchdowns. The harpoons that were to anchor Philae to the surface failed to fire, and scientists estimated the lander may have bounced as high as 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) before becoming wedged in the shadows of a cliff on the comet. After three days, Philae’s primary battery ran out of power and the lander went into hibernation, only to wake up again and communicate briefly with Rosetta in June and July 2015 as the comet came closer to the Sun and more power was available.

But after more than a year of silence, the Rosetta team announced in mid-August 2016 that they would no longer attempt communications with Philae.

Philae’s final location had been plotted but until yesterday, never actually seen by Rosetta’s cameras. Radio ranging data was used to narrow down the search to an area spanning a few tens of meters, and a number of potential candidate objects were identified in relatively low-resolution images taken from larger distances.

Philae close-up, labelled. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA.
Philae close-up, labelled. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA.

Compare some of the features of the cliff in the image above to this image taken by Philae of its surroundings:

The Philae lander captured a picture of a nearby cliff, nicknamed “Perihelion Cliff”, on the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA.
The Philae lander captured a picture of a nearby cliff, nicknamed “Perihelion Cliff”, on the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA.

“After months of work, with the focus and the evidence pointing more and more to this lander candidate, I’m very excited and thrilled that we finally have this all-important picture of Philae sitting in Abydos,” said ESA’s Laurence O’Rourke, who has been coordinating the search efforts over the last months at ESA, with the OSIRIS and SONC/CNES teams.

At 2.7 km, the resolution of the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera is about 5 cm/pixel, which is sufficient to reveal features of Philae’s 1 m-sized body and its legs.

“This wonderful news means that we now have the missing ‘ground-truth’ information needed to put Philae’s three days of science into proper context, now that we know where that ground actually is!” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.

An OSIRIS narrow-angle camera image taken on 2 September 2016 from a distance of 2.7 km in which Philae was definitively identified. The image has been processed to adjust the dynamic range in order to see Philae while maintaining the details of the comet's surface. Philae is located at the far right of the image, just above center. The image scale is about 5 cm/pixel. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA.
An OSIRIS narrow-angle camera image taken on 2 September 2016 from a distance of 2.7 km in which Philae was definitively identified. The image has been processed to adjust the dynamic range in order to see Philae while maintaining the details of the comet’s surface. Philae is located at the far right of the image, just above center. The image scale is about 5 cm/pixel. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA.

The discovery comes less than a month before Rosetta descends to the comet’s surface. On September 30, the orbiter will be sent on a final one-way mission to investigate the comet from close up, including the open pits in a region called Ma’at, where it is hoped that critical observations will help to reveal secrets of the body’s interior structure.

“Now that the lander search is finished we feel ready for Rosetta’s landing, and look forward to capturing even closer images of Rosetta’s touchdown site,” adds Holger Sierks, principal investigator of the OSIRIS camera.

The Rosetta team said they would be providing more details about the search as well as more images in the near future.

Source: ESA

Rosetta’s Philae Lander in Permanent Sleep

NAVCAM image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko acquired on Nov. 22, 2015.
NAVCAM image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko acquired on Nov. 22, 2015. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0.

ESA’s Philae lander, the first spacecraft to successfully soft-land on the surface of a comet and former piggyback partner to Rosetta, has not been in communication since July of 2015 and, with 67P now six months past perihelion and heading deeper out into the Solar System, it’s not likely it will ever be heard from again.

Continue reading “Rosetta’s Philae Lander in Permanent Sleep”

Weekly Space Hangout – Feb. 5, 2016: Dr. Or Graur

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: Dr. Or Graur, Research Associate at the Center for Cosmology and Particle Physics at New York University; Researches what type of star leads to a thermonuclear, or “Type Ia,” supernova.

Guests:
Carolyn Collins Petersen (thespacewriter.com / space.about.com / @spacewriter )
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Jolene Creighton (fromquarkstoquasars.com / @futurism)
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)

Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Feb. 5, 2016: Dr. Or Graur”

How to Find Rosetta’s Comet In Your Telescope

How would you like to see one of the most famous comets with your own eyes? Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko plies the morning sky, a little blot of fuzzy light toting an amazing visitor along for the ride — the Rosetta spacecraft. When you look at the coma and realize a human-made machine is buzzing around inside, it seems unbelievable. 

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko plows through a rich star field in Gemini on the morning of August 19, 2015. Photos show a short, faint tail to the west not visible to the eye in most amateur telescopes. Credit: Efrain Morales
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko plows through a rich star field in Gemini on the morning of August 20, 2015. Photos show a short, faint tail to the west not visible to the eye in most amateur telescopes. Credit: Efrain Morales

If you have a 10-inch or larger telescope, or you’re an experienced amateur with an 8-inch and pristine skies, 67P is within your grasp. The comet glows right around magnitude +12, about as bright as it will get this apparition. Periodic comets generally appear brightest around and shortly after perihelion or closest approach to the Sun, which for 67P/C-G occurred back on August 13.

The surface of Comet 67P/C-G is extensively fractured likely related to the intense freeze-thaw cycle that occurs during the heat of perihelion vs. the chill experienced in the outer part of its orbit. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
The surface of Comet 67P/C-G is extensively fractured due to loss of volatile ices, the expansion and contraction of the comet from solar heating and bitter cold and possibly even tectonic forces. The smaller polygonal shapes outlined by fractures in the lower right photo are just 6-16 feet (2-5 meters) across. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

You’ll be looking for a small, 1-arc-minute-diameter, compact, circular patch of nebulous light shortly before dawn when it’s highest in the east. Rosetta’s Comet will spend the remainder of August slicing across Gemini the Twins north of an nearly parallel to the ecliptic. I spotted 67P/C-G for the first time this go-round about a week ago in my 15-inch (37 cm) reflector. While it appears like a typical faint comet, thanks to Rosetta, we know this particular rough and tumble mountain of ice better than any previous comet. Photographs show rugged cliffs, numerous cracks due to the expansion and contraction of ice, blowholes that serve as sources for jets and smooth plains blanketed in fallen dust.

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

The jets are geyser-like sprays of dust and gas that loft grit and rocks from the comet’s interior and surface into space to create a coma or temporary atmosphere. This is what you’ll see in your telescope. And if you’re patient, you’ll even be able to catch this glowing tadpole on the move. I was surprised at its speed. After just 20 minutes, thanks to numerous field stars that acted as references, I could easily spot the comet’s eastward movement using a magnification of 245x.

Facing east around 4 a.m. local time in late August, you'll see the winter constellations Gemini and Orion. 67P/C-G's path is shown through
Facing east around 4 a.m. local time in late August, you’ll see the winter constellations Gemini and Orion. 67P/C-G’s path is shown through early September. Brighter stars near the path are labeled. Time shown is 4 a.m. CDT. Use this map to get oriented and then switch to the one below for telescope use. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Tomorrow morning, 67P/C-G passes very close to the magnitude +5 star Omega Geminorum. While this will make it easy to locate, the glare may swamp the comet. Set your alarm for an hour before dawn’s start to allow time to set up a telescope, dark-adapt your eyes and track down the field where the comet will be that morning using low magnification.

Once you’ve centered 67P/C-G’s position, increase the power to around 100x-150x and use averted vision to look for a soft, fuzzy patch of light. If you see nothing, take it to the next level (around 200-250x) and carefully search the area. The higher the magnification, the darker the field of view and easier it will be to spot it.

Detailed map showing the comet's path through central Gemini daily August 21-28, 2015 around 4 a.m. CDT. Brighter stars are marked with Greek letters and numbers. "48" = 48 Geminorum. Source: Chris Marriott's SkyMap
Detailed map showing the comet’s path through central Gemini daily August 21-28, 2015 around 4 a.m. CDT. Brighter stars are marked with Greek letters and numbers. “57”= 57 Geminorum. North is up, east to the left and stars to magnitude +13.5. Click for a larger version you can print out. Source: Chris Marriott’s SkyMap

Besides being relatively faint, the comet doesn’t get very high in the east before the onset of twilight. Low altitude means the atmosphere absorbs a share of the comet’s light, making it appear even fainter. Not that I want to dissuade you from looking! There’s nothing like seeing real 67P photons not to mention the adventure and sense of accomplishment that come from finding the object on your own.

As we advance into late summer and early fall, 67P/C-G will appear higher up but also be fading. Now through about August 27 and again from September 10-24 will be your best viewing times. That’s when the Moon’s absent from the sky.

Given the comet’s current distance from Earth of 165 million miles and apparent visual size of just shy of 1 arc minute, the coma measures very approximately 30,000 miles across. Rosetta orbits the comet’s 2.5-mile-long icy nucleus at a distance of about 115 miles (186 km), meaning it’s snug up against the nuclear center from our point of view on the ground.

If you do find and follow 67P/C-G, consider sharing your observations with the Pro-Amateur Collaborative Astronomy (PACA) campaign to help increase our knowledge of its behavior. Interested? Sign up HERE.

More Evidence That Comets May Have Brought Life to Earth

The idea of panspermia — that life on Earth originated from comets or asteroids bombarding our planet — is not new. But new research may have given the theory a boost. Scientists from Japan say their experiments show that early comet impacts could have caused amino acids to change into peptides, becoming the first building blocks of life. Not only would this help explain the genesis of life on Earth, but it could also have implications for life on other worlds.

Dr. Haruna Sugahara, from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokahama, and Dr. Koichi Mimura, from Nagoya University said they conducted “shock experiments on frozen mixtures of amino acid, water ice and silicate (forsterite) at cryogenic condition (77 K),” according to their paper. “In the experiments, the frozen amino acid mixture was sealed into a capsule … a vertical propellant gun was used to [simulate] impact shock.”

They analyzed the post-impact mixture with gas chromatography, and found that some of the amino acids had joined into short peptides of up to 3 units long (tripeptides).

Based on the experimental data, the researchers were able to estimate that the amount of peptides produced would be around the same as had been thought to be produced by normal terrestrial processes (such as lighting storms or hydration and dehydration cycles).

Artists concept of the stardust spacecraft flying throug the gas and dust from comet Wild 2. Credit: NASA/JPL
Artists concept of the stardust spacecraft flying throug the gas and dust from comet Wild 2. Credit: NASA/JPL
“This finding indicates that comet impacts almost certainly played an important role in delivering the seeds of life to the early Earth,” said Sugahara. “It also opens the likelihood that we will have seen similar chemical evolution in other extraterrestrial bodies, starting with cometary-derived peptides.”

The earliest known fossils on Earth are from about 3.5 billion years ago and there is evidence that biological activity took place even earlier. But there’s evidence that early Earth had little water and carbon-based molecules on the Earth’s surface, so how could these building blocks of life delivered to the Earth’s surface so quickly? This was also about the time of the Late Heavy Bombardment, and so the obvious answer could be the collision of comets and asteroids with the Earth, since these objects contain abundant supplies of both water and carbon-based molecules.

A view of NASA's Deep Impact probe colliding with comet Tempel 1, captured by the Deep Impact flyby spacecraft's high-resolution instrument.
A view of NASA’s Deep Impact probe colliding with comet Tempel 1, captured by the Deep Impact flyby spacecraft’s high-resolution instrument.

Space missions to comets are helping to confirm this possibility. The 2004 Stardust mission found the amino acid when it collected particles from Comet Wild 2. When NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft crashed into Comet Tempel 1 in 2005, it discovered a mixture of organic and clay particles inside the comet. One theory about the origins of life is that clay particles act as a catalyst, allowing simple organic molecules to get arranged into more and more complex structures.

The news from the current Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko also indicates that comets are a rich source of materials, and more discoveries are likely to be forthcoming from that mission.

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

“Two key parts to this story are how complex molecules are initially generated on comets and then how they survive/evolve when the comet hits a planet like the Earth,” said Professor Mark Burchell from the University of Kent in the UK, commenting on the new research from Japan. “Both of these steps can involve shocks which deliver energy to the icy body… building on earlier work, Dr. Sugahara and Dr. Mimura have shown how amino acids on icy bodies can be turned into short peptide sequences, another key step along the path to life.”

“Comet impacts are normally associated with mass extinction on Earth, but this works shows that they probably helped kick-start the whole process of life in the first place,” said Sugahara. “The production of short peptides is the key step in the chemical evolution of complex molecules. Once the process is kick-started, then much less energy is needed to make longer chain peptides in a terrestrial, aquatic environment.”

The scientists also indicated that similar “kickstarting” could have happened in other places in our Solar System, such as on the icy moons Europa and Enceladus, as they likely underwent a similar comet bombardment.

Sugahara and Mimura presented their findings at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Prague, going on this week.

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

Why is it Tough to Land on a Comet?

Why is landing on a comet so difficult and what does this tell us about future missions to comets and asteroids?

Us nerds were riveted by the coverage of the ESA’s Rosetta mission and its arrival at Comet 67/P in 2014. One such nerd is Paco Juarez, friend of the show and patron. He wanted to know why is it so darned hard to land on a comet?

In 2014, the tiny Philae Lander detached from the spacecraft and slowly descended down to the surface of the comet. If everything went well, it would have gracefully touched down and then sent back a pile of information about this filthy roving snowball.
As you know, the landing didn’t go according to plan. Instead of gently touching down on 67/P, Philae bounced off the surface of the comet like a tennis ball dropped from a tower, and rose a kilometer off the surface. Then more descending, and more bouncing, finally settling down on rugged terrain, surrounded by crevices and large boulders. At that point, engineers lost contact with the lander, and so much science went undone.

If I recorded this video a few months ago, that would have been the end of the story. You know how this goes, space exploration is hard and dangerous, don’t be surprised when your missions fail and space unfeelingly smashes up your pretty little robot probes with their little gold foil 27 pieces of flair.

Rosetta
Rosetta

Fortunately, I’m able to report that ESA regained contact with the Philae lander on June 13, 2015, resuming its mission, and scientific operations.

But why is landing on a comet so difficult and what does this tell us about future robotic and human missions to smaller comets and asteroids? When ESA engineers designed Philae, they knew it was going to be very difficult to land on a comet like 67/P because they have a such a low gravity. And they have low gravity because they’re little.

Illustration of the Rosetta Missions Philae lander on final approach to a comet surface. (Photo: ESA)
Illustration of the Rosetta Missions Philae lander on final approach to a comet surface. (Photo: ESA)

On Earth, 6 septillion tonnes of rock and metal give you an escape velocity of 11.2 km/s. That’s how fast you need to be able to jump in order to leave the planet entirely. But the escape velocity of 67/P is only 1 m/s. You could trip off the comet and never return. Whilst small children threw rocks at you from the surface as you drifted away.

Philae was built with harpoon drills in its landing struts. The moment the lander touched the surface of the comet, those harpoons were supposed to fire, securing the lander. The surface of the comet was softer than scientists had anticipated, and the harpoons didn’t fire. Or possibly they were broken and couldn’t fire. Space is hard. Whatever the case, without being able to grab onto the surface, it used the comet as a bouncy castle.

We’re learning what it takes to land on lower mass objects like comets and asteroids. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission will visit Comet Bennu, and send a lander down to the surface of the asteroid. From there it’ll pick up a few samples, and return them back to Earth. It’ll be Philae, all over again.

An artist concept of the Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Credit: Astrium - E. Viktor/ESA
An artist concept of the Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: Astrium – E. Viktor/ESA

In the future, we’re told, humans will be visiting asteroids to study them for science and their potential for ice and minerals. You can imagine it’ll be a harrowing descent, but even just walking around on the surface will be dangerous when every step could throw an astronaut into an escape trajectory. They’ll need to learn lessons from rock climbers and Rorschach.

As we learned with Philae, landings on low mass objects is really tough. We’re going to need to get more practice and develop new techniques and technologies before we’re ready to add asteroid mining to our list of “stuff we just do, NBD”.

What are some unusual worlds you’d like humanity to visit? Put your suggestions in the comments below.

Dramatic Outburst at Rosetta’s Comet Just Days Before Perihelion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Sources: 1, 2

Rosetta’s Comet Sparkles with Ice, Blows Dust From Sinkholes

Comet 67P/C-G may be tiny at just 2.5 miles (4 km) across, but its diverse landscapes and the processes that shape them astound. To say nature packs a lot into small packages is an understatement.

In newly-released images taken by Rosetta’s high-resolution OSIRIS science camera, the comet almost seems alive. Sunlight glints off icy boulders and pancaking sinkholes blast geysers of dust into the surrounding coma.

Examples of six different bright patches identified on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images acquired in September 2014. The insets point to the broad regions in which they were discovered (not to specific locations). In total, 120 bright regions, including clusters of bright features, isolated features and individual boulders, were identified in images acquired during September 2014 when the spacecraft was between 20-50 km from the comet center. The false colour images are red-green-blue composites assembled from monochrome images taken at different times and have been stretched and slightly saturated to emphasis the contrasts of colour such that dark terrains appear redder and bright regions appear significantly bluer compared with what the human eye would normally see. Credit: SA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Examples of six different bright patches identified on the surface of 67P/C-G in images taken last September when Rosetta was 20-50 km from the comet. The center panel points to the broad regions in which they were discovered (not specific locations). 120 bright regions, including clusters of bright features, isolated features and individual boulders, were seen. The false color images were taken at different times and have been stretched and slightly saturated to emphasis color contrasts so that dark terrains appear redder and bright regions appear significantly bluer compared with what the human eye would normally see. Credit: SA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

More than a hundred patches of water ice some 6 to 15 feet across (a few meters) dot the comet’s surface according to a  new study just published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. We’ve known from previous studies and measurements that comets are rich in ice. As they’re warmed by the Sun, ice vaporizes and carries away embedded dust particles that form the comet’s atmosphere or coma and give it a fuzzy appearance.

Examples of icy bright patches seen on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko during September 2014. The two left hand images are subsets of OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images acquired on 5 September; the right hand images were acquired on 16 September. During this time the spacecraft was about 30-40 km from the comet center. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Examples of icy bright patches and clusters seen in September 2014. The two left hand images are crops of OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images acquired on September 5; the right hand images are from September 16. During this time the spacecraft was about 19-25 miles (30-40 km) from the comet center. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Not all that fine powder leaves the comet. Some settles back to the surface, covering the ice and blackening the nucleus. This explains why all the comets we’ve seen up close are blacker than coal despite being made of material that’s as bright as snow.

True brightness comparisons of four different Solar System bodies. At top are Saturn's moon Enceladus, its ice-covered surface making it one of the brightest objects in the Solar System, and Earth. At bottom are the Moon and Comet 67P. Credit: ESA
True brightness comparisons of four different Solar System bodies. At top are Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Earth. At bottom are the Moon and Comet 67P. Enceladus’ ice-covered surface makes it one of the brightest objects in the Solar System. In contrast, 67P is one of the darkest, its icy surface coated in dark mineral dust and organic compounds. Credit: ESA

Scientists have identified 120 regions on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that are up to ten times brighter than the average surface brightness. Some are individual boulders, while others form clusters of bright specks. Seen in high resolution, many appear to be boulders with exposures of ice on their surfaces; the clusters are often found at the base of overhanging cliffs and likely got there when cliff walls collapsed, sending an avalanche of icy rocks downhill and exposing fresh ice not covered by dark dust.

An individual boulder about 12 feet across with bright patches on its surface in the Hatmehit region. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
An individual boulder about 12 feet across with bright patches on its surface in the Hatmehit region. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

More intriguing are the isolated boulders found here and there that appear to have no relation to the surrounding terrain.  Scientists think they arrived George Jetson style when they were jetted from the comet’s surface by the explosive vaporization of ice only to later land in a new location. The comet’s exceedingly low gravity makes this possible. Let that image marinate in your mind for a moment.

All the ice-glinting boulders seen thus far were found in shadowed regions not exposed to sunlight, and no changes were observed in their appearance over a month’s worth of observations.

“Water ice is the most plausible explanation for the occurrence and properties of these features,” says Antoine Pommerol of the University of Bern and lead author of the study.

How do we know it’s water ice and not CO2 or some other form of ice? Easy. When the observations were made, water ice would have been vaporizing at the rate of 1 mm per hour of solar illumination. By contrast, carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide ice, which have much lower freezing points, would have rapidly sublimated in sunlight. Water ice vaporizes much more slowly in comparison.

Lab tests using ice mixed with different minerals under simulated sunlight revealed that it only took a few hours of sublimation to produce a dust layer only a few millimeters thick. But it was enough to conceal any sign of ice. They also found that small chunks of dust would sometimes break away to expose fresh ice beneath.

“A 1 mm thick layer of dark dust is sufficient to hide the layers below from optical instruments,” confirms Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

Comet 67P/C-G on June 21, 2015. The nucleus is a mixture of frozen ices and dust. As the comet approaches the Sun, sunlight warms its surface, causing the ices to boil away. This gas streams away carrying along large amounts of dust, and together they build up the coma. Copyright: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
Comet 67P/C-G on June 21, 2015. The nucleus is a mixture of frozen ices and dust. As the comet approaches the Sun, sunlight warms its surface, causing the ices to boil away. This gas streams away carrying along large amounts of dust, and together they build up the coma. Copyright: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

It appears then that Comet 67P’s surface is mostly covered in dark dust with small exposures of fresh ice resulting from changes in the landscape like crumbling cliffs and boulder-tossing from jet activity. As the comet approaches perihelion, some of that ice will become exposed to sunlight while new patches may appear. You, me and the Rosetta team can’t wait to see the changes.

High-resolution view of active regions in Seth as seen with Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 20 September 2014 from a distance of about 26 km from the surface. The image scale is about 45 cm/pixel. The Seth_01 pit is seen close to centre and measures approximately 220 m across and 185 m deep. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
High-resolution view of an active pit photographed last September from a distance of about 16 miles  (26 km) from the comet’s surface in the Seth region. The image scale is about 45 cm a pixel. The Seth_01 pit measures approximately 720 feet (220 m) across and 605 feet (85 m) deep. Note the smooth deposits of dust around the pit. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Ever wonder how a comet gets its jets? In another new study appearing in the science journal Nature, a team of researchers report that 18 active pits or sinkholes have been identified in the comet’s northern hemisphere. These roughly circular holes appear to be the source of the elegant jets like those seen in the photo above. The pits range in size from around 100 to 1,000 feet (30-100 meters) across with depths up to 690 feet (210 meters). For the first time ever, individual jets can be traced back to specific pits.

In specially processed photos, material can be seen streaming from inside pit walls like snow blasting from a snowmaking machine. Incredible!

Active pits detected in the Seth region of Comet 67P/Churyumov¬Gerasimenko can be seen in the lower right portion of this OSIRIS wide-angle camera image. The contrast of the image has been deliberately stretched to reveal the details of the fine-structured jets against the shadow of the pit, which are interpreted as dusty streams rising from the fractured wall of the pit. The image was acquired on 20 October 2014 from a distance of 7 km from the surface of the comet. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Active pits detected in the Seth region of the comet. The contrast of the image has been stretched to reveal the details of the fine-structured jets against the shadow of the pit, which are interpreted as dusty streams rising from the fractured wall of the pit. The image was acquired on October 20, 2014 from a distance of 4.3 miles (7 km) from the surface of the comet. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

“We see jets arising from the fractured areas of the walls inside the pits. These fractures mean that volatiles trapped under the surface can be warmed more easily and subsequently escape into space,” said Jean-Baptiste Vincent from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, lead author of the study.

Similar to the way sinkholes form on Earth, scientists believe pits form when the ceiling of a subsurface cavity becomes too thin to support its own weight. With nothing below to hold it place, it collapses, exposing fresh ice below which quickly vaporizes. Exiting the hole, it forms a collimated jet of dust and gas.

Pits Ma’at 1, 2 and 3 on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko show differences in appearance that may reflect their history of activity. While pits 1 and 2 are active, no activity has been observed from pit 3. The young, active pits are particularly steep-sided, whereas pits without any observed activity are shallower and seem to be filled with dust. Middle-aged pits tend to exhibit boulders on their floors from mass-wasting of the sides. The image was taken with the OSIRIS narrow-angle camera from a distance of 28 km from the comet surface. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Pits Ma’at 1, 2 and 3 show differences in appearance that may reflect their history of activity. While pits 1 and 2 are active, no activity has been observed from pit 3. The young, active pits are very steep-sided; pits without any observed activity are shallower and seem to be filled with dust. Middle-aged pits tend to have boulders on their floors from mass-wasting of the sides.
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

The paper’s authors suggest three ways for pits to form:

* The comet may contain voids that have been there since its formation. Collapse could be triggered by either vaporizing ice or seismic shaking when boulders ejected elsewhere on the comet land back on the surface.
* Direct sublimation of pockets of volatile (more easily vaporized) ices like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide below the surface as sunlight warms the dark surface dust, transferring heat below.
* Energy liberated by water ice changing its physical state from amorphous to its normal crystalline form and stimulating the sublimation of the surrounding more volatile carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide ices.

Graphic explaining how Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko’s pits may form through sinkhole collapse. The graphic shows a dusty surface layer covering a mixture of dust and ices. 1. Heat causes subsurface ices to sublimate (blue arrows), forming a cavity (2). When the ceiling becomes too weak to support its own weight, it collapses, creating a deep, circular pit (3, red arrow). Newly exposed material in the pit walls sublimates, accounting for the observed activity (3, blue arrows).
Graphic showing how pits may form through sinkhole collapse in the comet’s dusty surface layer covering a mixture of dust and ices. 1. Heat causes subsurface ices to sublimate (blue arrows), forming a cavity. 2.When the ceiling becomes too weak to support its own weight, it collapses, creating a deep, circular pit (orange arrow). Newly exposed material in the pit walls sublimates (blue arrows). Credit: ESA/Rosetta/J-B Vincent et al (2015)

The researchers think they can use the appearance of the sinkholes to age-date different parts of the comet’s surface — the more pits there are in a region, the younger and less processed the surface there is. They point to 67P/C-G’s southern hemisphere which receives more energy from the Sun than the north and at least for now, shows no pit structures.

The most active pits have steep sides, while the least show softened contours and are filled with dust. It’s even possible that a partial collapse might be the cause of the occasional outbursts when a comet suddenly brightens and enlarges as seen from Earth. Rosetta observed just such an outburst this past April. And these holes can really kick out the dust! It’s estimated a typical full pit collapse releases a billion kilograms of material.

With Rosetta in great health and perihelion yet to come, great things lie ahead. Maybe we’ll witness a new sinkhole collapse, an icy avalanche or even levitating boulders!

Sources: 1, 2