|Various features on a smooth part of the comet’s surface in the region named Imhotep.|
Excerpt from wired.com
The Rosetta spacecraft has been studying comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko up close since August, collecting data of unprecedented detail and taking pictures of a starkly beautiful comet-scape. While the Philae lander has enjoyed much of the spotlight—partly thanks to its now-famous triple landing—Rosetta has been making plenty of its own discoveries.
One of the biggest came last month, when scientists found that the chemical signature of the comet’s water is nothing like that on Earth, contradicting the theory that crashing comets supplied our planet with water. Comet 67P belongs to the Jupiter family of comets, and the findings also imply that these kinds of comets were formed at a wider range of distances from the sun than previously thought, says Michael A’Hearn, a planetary scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, and member of the Rosetta science team.
Today, scientists have published the first big set of results from Rosetta in a slew of papers in the journal Science. The results include measurements and analyses of the comet’s shape, structure, surface, and the surrounding dust and gas particles. Here are just a few of the amazing things they’ve discovered about Rosetta’s comet so far:
The surface is fantastically weird
The comet has quite the textured landscape, covered with steep cliffs, boulders, weird bumps, cracks, pits, and smooth terrain. There are fractures of all sizes, including one that’s several yards wide and stretches for more than half a mile along the comet’s neck. Researchers don’t yet know what caused these cracks. The pits have steep sides and flat bottoms, ranging in size from a few tens to hundreds of feet wide. Jets of dust shoot out from some of the pits, suggesting that the ejection of material formed these features. Another strange feature is what scientists are calling goosebumps—weird bumpy patches found particularly on steep slopes.
While other features such as pits and fractures range in sizes, all of the goosebumps are about 10 feet wide. No one knows what kind of process would make the bumps, but whatever it is could have played an important part in the comet’s formation. It may be breezy Rosetta spotted dune- and ripple-like patterns,wind tails behind rocks, and even moats surrounding rocks, suggesting that a light breeze may blow dust along the surface. Such a gentle wind would have to come from gases leaking from below.
Because of the extremely low gravity on the comet, it wouldn’t take a strong gust to blow things around. It may have formed from two separate pieces Or not. The most distinct feature of comet 67P is its odd, two-lobed shape, which resembles a duck. Although scientists have seen this lobed structure in other comets before, namely Borrelly and Hartley 2, none are as pronounced as comet 67P’s. Borrelly and Hartley 2 look more like elongated potatoes while 67P has a clearly defined head and body. The strange shape suggests the comet was once two separate pieces called cometesimals—what are now the duck’s head and body—that stuck together.
The other possibility is that erosion ate away the parts around the neck. Preliminary evidence points to the first hypothesis.
“Probably most of us on the OSIRIS team lean toward thinking it was two cometesimals,” A’Hearn said. (OSIRIS is one of Rosetta’s imaging instruments.) But the scientists won’t have conclusive evidence until they study the comet in more detail. For example, they now see layering along the neck—if erosion carved out the comet’s duck shape, they should find the same same layering pattern continuing onto the other side of the neck.
Black, with a tinge of red
Even Rosetta’s color pictures show a grayish comet, but if you were to see it in person, you would see a pitch-black chunk of dust and ice, as it reflects only six percent of incoming light. By comparison, the moon reflects 12 percent of incoming light and Earth reflects 31 percent. But comet 67P’s not completely black, as it has a hint of red. Water, water, nowhere? The comet’s covered in opaque, organic compounds. Although comet 67P is undoubtedly icy, it hardly shows any water ice on its surface at all.
Which isn’t too surprising, as comets Tempel 1 and Hartley 2 didn’t have much ice on their surfaces either, A’Hearn says. Rosetta has yet to see sunlight reach every side of the comet yet, so there may still be some icy patches hidden from view. But, researchers do see the comet spraying water vapor into space, which means water ice likely lies just beneath the surface. The ice doesn’t have to be more than a centimeter deep to be invisible from the infrared instruments that detect the ice. Indeed, the data from Philae’s first bounce suggested that there’s a hard layer of ice beneath 4 to 8 inches of dust.
This duck floats
If you could find a big enough pond, that is. Like other known comets, the density of comet 67P is about half that of water ice. Initial measurements reveal that it’s also very porous—as much as 80 percent of it may be empty space. Rosetta has found depressions, which may have formed when the surface collapsed over particularly porous material underneath.
Different from every angle
As the comet nears the sun, it heats up, and ices and other volatile chemicals sublimate, spraying gases into space. So far, the most prominent gases that have been ejected are water vapor, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. They spew out in different amounts from different parts of the comet. In particular, a lot of the water has been observed gushing out from the neck.
The comet will continue to get more active as it reaches its closest approach to the sun in mid-August. It will burst with stronger jets of gas and dust, and maybe even blast off chunks of itself. If the comet is this interesting now, A’Hearn says, just wait until it gets to its nearest point to the sun, when it’s just 1.29 times farther from the sun than Earth is.