Dust Whirls, Swirls and Twirls at Rosetta’s Comet

Tell me this montage shouldn’t be hanging in the Lourve Museum. Every time I think I’ve seen the “best image” of Rosetta’s comet, another one takes its place. Or in this case four! When you and I look at a comet in our telescopes or binoculars, we’re seeing mostly the coma, the bright, fluffy head of the comet composed of dust and gas ejected by the tiny, completely invisible, icy nucleus.

As we examine this beautiful set of photos, we’re  privileged to see  the individual fountains of gas and dust that leave the comet to create the coma. Much of the outgassing comes from the narrow neck region between the two lobes. 

This photo taken on Feb. 27 shows the comet with peacock-like display of dusty jets. Below center is a streak that may be a dust particle that traveled during the exposure. Credits:
This photo taken on Feb. 27 shows the comet with peacock-like display of dusty jets. Below center is a streak that may be a dust particle that traveled during the exposure. Other small white spots are also likely dust or bits of comet that have broken off. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

All were taken between February 25-27 at distances around 50-62 miles (80 to 100 km) from the center of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Looking more closely, the comet nucleus appears to be “glowing” with a thin layer of dust and gas suspended above the surface. In the lower left Feb. 27 image, a prominent streak is visible. While this might be a cosmic ray zap, its texture hints that it could also be a dust particle captured during the time exposure. Because it moved a significant distance across the frame, the possible comet chunk may be relatively close to the spacecraft. Just a hunch.

Another close-up individual image from Rosetta's NAVCAM. Credit:
Another close-up individual image from Rosetta’s NAVCAM. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

While most of Rosetta’s NAVCAM images are taken for navigation purposes, these images were obtained to provide context in support of observations performed at the same time with the Alice ultraviolet (UV) imaging spectrograph on Rosetta. Observing in ultraviolet light, Alice determines the composition of material in coma, the nucleus and where they interface. Alice will also monitor the production rates of familiar molecules like H2O, CO (carbon monoxide) and CO2 as they leave the nucleus and enter 67P’s coma and tail.

Alice makes its observations in UV light through a long, narrow slit seen here superimposed on a graphic of comet 67P/ C-G. Credit: ESA/NASA
Alice makes its observations in UV light through a long, narrow slit seen here superimposed on a graphic of comet 67P/ C-G. Credit: ESA/NASA

From data collected so far, the Alice team has discovered that the comet is unusually dark in the ultraviolet, and that its surface shows no large water-ice patches. Water however has been detected as vapor leaving the comet as it’s warmed by the Sun. The amount varies as the nucleus rotates, but the last published measurements put the average loss rate at 1 liter (34 ounces) per second with a maximum of 5 liters per second. Vapors from sublimating carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide ice have also been detected. Sometimes one or another will dominate over water, but overall, water remains the key volatile material outgassed in the greatest quantity.

Particularly striking and collimated jets emerge from the comet's Hathor region in the neck between the two lobes. Credit:
Particularly striking and collimated jets emerge from the comet’s shadowed Hathor region between the two lobes. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
A separate image taken on Feb. 28. According to ESA, The curved shape of the outflowing material likely results from a combination of several factors, including the rotation of the comet, differential flows of near-surface gas, and gravitational effects arising due to the uneven shape of the comet. The viewing perspective of the image might also distort the true shape of the outflowing material. Credit:
Look at those spirals! In this separate image, taken Feb. 28, ESA suggests the curved shape of the outflowing material likely results from a combination of several factors, including the rotation of the comet, differential flows of near-surface gas, and gravitational effects arising due to the uneven shape of the comet. The viewing perspective of the image might also distort the true shape of the outflowing material. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

That and dust. In fact, 67P is giving off about twice as much dust as gas. We see the comet’s dual emissions by reflected sunlight, but because there’s so much less material in the jets than what makes up the nucleus, they’re fainter and require longer exposures and special processing to bring out without seriously overexposing the comet’s core.

67P’s coma will only grow thicker and more intense as it approaches perihelion on August 13.

Alien Planet’s Clear Weather Could Show Way To ‘Super-Earth’ Atmospheres

In an encouraging find for habitability researchers, astronomers have detected molecules on the smallest planet ever — a Neptune-sized planet about 120 light-years from Earth. The team behind the discovery says this means the dream of understanding the atmospheres on planets even closer to size of Earth is getting closer.

“The work we are doing now is important for future studies of super-Earths and even smaller planets, because we want to be able to pick out in advance the planets with clear atmospheres that will let us detect molecules,” stated co-author Heather Knutson, of the California Institute of Technology.

This particular world is not life-friendly as we understand it, however. Called HAT-P-11b, it’s not only a gas giant but also a planet that orbits extremely close to its star — making one circle every five days. And unusually among planets of its size that were previously probed by astronomers, it appears to have clear skies.

The team examined the world using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3, looking at the planet as it passed across the face of its star. The team compared the signature of elements observed when the planet was in front of the star and when it was not, and discovered telltale signs of water vapor in its atmosphere.

Artist's conception of what the weather may look like on HAT-P-11b, a Neptune-sized exoplanet. The upper atmosphere (right) appears clear while the lower atmosphere may host clouds. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of what the weather may look like on HAT-P-11b, a Neptune-sized exoplanet. The upper atmosphere (right) appears clear while the lower atmosphere may host clouds. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While other planets outside our solar system are known to have water vapor, the ones previously examined are much larger. Jupiter-sized planets are much easier to examine not only because they are larger, but their atmospheres puff up more (making them more visible from Earth.)

To confirm the water vapor was not a false signal from sunspots on the parent star (which also can contain it), the team used the Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes to confirm the information. (Kepler’s single field of view around the constellation Cygnus, which it had been peering at for about four years, happily included the zone where HAT-P-11b was orbiting.) The infrared information from Spitzer and the visible-light data from Kepler both showed the sunspots were too hot for water vapor.

Further, the discovery shows there were no clouds in the way of the observations — a first for planets of that size. The team also hopes that super-Earths could have clear skies, allowing astronomers to analyze their atmospheres.

“When astronomers go observing at night with telescopes, they say ‘clear skies’ to mean good luck,” stated lead author Jonathan Fraine, of the University of Maryland, College Park. “In this case, we found clear skies on a distant planet. That’s lucky for us because it means clouds didn’t block our view of water molecules.”

The research was published in the journal Nature.

Source: NASA