Rosetta-Alice Spectrograph Obtains First Far Ultraviolet Spectra Of A Cometary Surface While Orbiting Churyumov-Gerasimenko
NASA’s Alice ultraviolet (UV) spectrograph aboard the European Space Agency’s Rosetta comet orbiter has delivered its first scientific discoveries. Rosetta, in orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, is the first spacecraft to study a comet up close.
As Alice began mapping the comet’s surface last month, it made the first far ultraviolet spectra of a cometary surface. From these data, the Alice team discovered that the comet is unusually dark at ultraviolet wavelengths and that the comet’s surface — so far — shows no large water-ice patches. Alice is also already detecting both hydrogen and oxygen in the comet’s coma, or atmosphere.
“We’re a bit surprised at both just how very unreflective the comet’s surface is, and what little evidence of exposed water-ice it shows,” says Dr. Alan Stern, Alice principal investigator and an associate vice president of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) Space Science and Engineering Division.
The NASA and European Space Agency Cassini mission has revealed hundreds of lakes and seas spread across the north polar region of Saturn’s moon Titan. These lakes are filled not with water but with hydrocarbons, a form of organic compound that is also found naturally on Earth and includes methane. The vast majority of liquid in Titan’s lakes is thought to be replenished by rainfall from clouds in the moon’s atmosphere. But how liquids move and cycle through Titan’s crust and atmosphere is still relatively unknown.
A recent study led by Olivier Mousis, a Cassini research associate at the University of Franche-Comté, France, examined how Titan’s methane rainfall would interact with icy materials within underground reservoirs. They found that the formation of materials called clathrates changes the chemical composition of the rainfall runoff that charges these hydrocarbon “aquifers.” This process leads to the formation of reservoirs of propane and ethane that may feed into some rivers and lakes
“We knew that a significant fraction of the lakes on Titan’s surface might possibly be connected with hidden bodies of liquid beneath Titan’s crust, but we just didn’t know how they would interact,” said Mousis. “Now, we have a better idea of what these hidden lakes or oceans could be like.”
Using detailed information collected by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft during its first two weeks at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, five locations have been identified as candidate sites to set down the Philae lander in November – the first time a landing on a comet has ever been attempted.
Before arrival, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko had never been seen close up and so the race to find a suitable landing site for the 100 kg lander could only begin when Rosetta rendezvoused with the comet on 6 August.
The landing is expected to take place in mid-November when the comet is about 450 million km from the Sun, before activity on the comet reaches levels that might jeopardise the safe and accurate deployment of Philae to the comet’s surface, and before surface material is modified by this activity.
The comet is on a 6.5-year orbit around the Sun and today is 522 million km from it. At their closest approach on 13 August 2015, just under a year from now, the comet and Rosetta will be 185 million km from the Sun, meaning an eightfold increase in the light received from the Sun.
In 2012, the Voyager mission team announced that the Voyager 1 spacecraft had passed into interstellar space, traveling further from Earth than any other manmade object.
But, in the nearly two years since that historic announcement, and despite subsequent observations backing it up, uncertainty about whether Voyager 1 really crossed the threshold continues. There are some scientists who say that the spacecraft is still within the heliosphere – the region of space dominated by the Sun and its wind of energetic particles – and has not yet reached the space between the stars.
Now, two Voyager team scientists have developed a test that they say could prove once and for all if Voyager 1 has crossed the boundary. The new test is outlined in a study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
Rocks are silent storytellers: because each mineral is created only under certain conditions, they provide insight into the evolution of the body on which they are found. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany have now begun to tell such a story from the enigmatic dark material discovered on the protoplanet Vesta. Using data from the framing camera aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, the researchers have succeeded for the first time in identifying a mineral component of this material: serpentine. The new discovery puts an end to the discussion about the origin of the dark material: impacts of primitive asteroids must have distributed it on Vesta.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has been given the go-ahead to conduct an intensive search for a suitable outer solar system object that the New Horizons (NH) spacecraft could visit after the probe streaks though the Pluto system in July 2015.
Hubble observations will begin in July and are expected to conclude in August.
Assuming a suitable target is found at the completion of the survey and some follow-up observations are made later in the year, if NASA approves, the New Horizons’ trajectory can be modified in the fall of 2015 to rendezvous with the target Kuiper Belt object (KBO) three to four years later.
ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft has found that comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko is releasing the equivalent of two small glasses of water into space every second, even at a cold 583 million kilometres from the Sun.
The first observations of water vapour streaming from the comet were made by the Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter, or MIRO, on 6 June, when the spacecraft was about 350 000 kilometres from the comet.
Since the initial detection, water vapour has been found every time MIRO has been pointed towards the comet.
“We always knew we would see water vapour outgassing from the comet, but we were surprised at how early we detected it,” says Sam Gulkis, the instrument’s principal investigator at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, USA.
“At this rate, the comet would fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in about 100 days. But, as it gets closer to the Sun, the gas production rate will increase significantly. With Rosetta, we have an amazing vantage point to observe these changes up close and learn more about exactly why they happen.”