Data collected by NASA’s Alice instrument aboard the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft reveal that electrons close to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko — not photons from the sun, as had been believed — cause the rapid breakup of water and carbon dioxide molecules spewing from the comet’s surface.
“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. “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 report of the findings has been accepted for publication by the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.
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.
Three NASA science instruments aboard the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft, which is set to become the first to orbit a comet and land a probe on its nucleus, are beginning observations and sending science data back to Earth.
Launched in March 2004, Rosetta was reactivated in January 2014 after a record 957 days in hibernation. Composed of an orbiter and lander, Rosetta’s objective is to arrive at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August to study the celestial object up close in unprecedented detail and prepare for landing a probe on the comet’s nucleus in November.
Rosetta’s lander will obtain the first images taken from a comet’s surface and will provide the first analysis of a comet’s composition by drilling into the surface. Rosetta also will be the first spacecraft to witness at close proximity how a comet changes as it is subjected to the increasing intensity of the sun’s radiation. Observations will help scientists learn more about the origin and evolution of our solar system and the role comets may have played in seeding Earth with water, and perhaps even life.
Two months after ESA’s space probe Rosetta starts its approach towards Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the comet will show activity. This is earlier than expected.
On its way towards the Sun comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, next year’s destination of ESA’s spacecraft Rosetta, will start emitting gas and dust earlier than previously expected. The comet’s activity should be measurable from Earth by March 2014. This is one of the results of a new study performed by a group of researchers under the lead of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany. The scientists analyzed numerous images from the comet’s past three orbits around the Sun, obtained with ground based telescopes. For the first time, they were able to reconstruct the comet’s activity in all phases of its orbit.
A comet spends the main part of its existence far from the Sun as an unchanged lump of ice and rock. When it approaches the Sun, however, a metamorphosis takes place: highly volatile substances vaporize from the nucleus carrying fountains of dust particles with them. These accumulate to form the comet’s atmosphere, the coma, and are the origin of its tail, a comet’s most characteristic feature. However, the principles governing these processes are still only poorly understood. What instances spark the ejection of gas and dust? How does this activity evolve? And which processes on the surface and within the comet’s nucleus are decisive?
Next year, ESA’s spacecraft Rosetta will try to answer these questions.
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