All the Incredible Things We Learned From Our First Trip to a Comet
When Halley's Comet paid us a visit back in 1986, the European Space Agency's Giotto spacecraft was sent to explore the incoming ball of ice and dirt. By the time the mission was over, it became glaringly obvious that if we were ever going to learn anything about comets, we're going to have to get a bit closer. Like, a lot closer.
So the ESA began to brainstorm a number of concepts, but the one that eventually came to fruition was the Rosetta Mission. Among the project's many lofty goals, the mission planners sought to put a space probe in orbit around Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, or simply 67P, and then to have it fly alongside the celestial object as it made its way around the sun.
In addition to being equipped with a diverse set of measuring instruments and cameras, Rosetta was also supplied with the Philae Lander-a probe within a probe that was to land on the comet itself.
Launched on March 2, 2004, the Rosetta probe began to make its way towards the comet, passing by Mars and several large asteroids along the way. Several weeks after its launch, Rosetta used its dual imaging camera
to take its first picture of the comet
As the probe got closer, mission scientists were shocked to discover that the comet was...well...really weird. Known as a two-fold comet, it bore
a startling resemblance to a rubber ducky
Rosetta arrived at
On November 12, 2014, the Philae Lander began its slow descent towards the comet, but
things didn't go exactly as planned
Unable to draw solar energy from the sun, Philae went into hibernation mode. It awoke briefly a few months later, but was eventually declared dead. The lander
was finally discovered
It wasn't exactly what the mission planners had hoped for,
but the experience still managed to produce some meaningful data
As Philae made its harrowing journey across the surface of the comet, its onboard sensors were busy collecting important data. Based on the lander's initial contact with the comet, the researchers learned that the surface, at least at the landing site, was comprised of a soft, mushy layer about a foot thick.
Below this granular layer of regolith was a surprisingly solid layer of rock. The hardness of this layer may explain why only one of Philae's legs was able to anchor itself to this lower surface level. Data from Philae suggests that the upper layers of the comet's surface consist of dust that's about 4-8 inches (10 to 20 cm) thick.
And Rosetta isn't solid all the way through. It
is filled with a surprising amount of dust
As the data streamed in from Rosetta and Philae, scientists sought to make sense of it all. In late January 2015, a batch of preliminary findings were published in the journal Science . Among the many surprising discoveries, scientists observed ripples and dunes on the comet's surface, which was completely unexpected given that the comet lacks an atmosphere (and therefore wind) and experiences very little gravity.
To explain the phenomenon, scientists speculated that jets of gas and dust were substituting for wind, and the particles were bound together by the van der Waals force (weak, short-ranged electrostatic forces between uncharged molecules) instead of gravity.
Mission scientists also began to paint a picture of the comet's chemical composition. Using the Rosetta Orbiter Sensor for Ion and Neutral Analysis (ROSINA), the scientists detected water, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, and methanol. But the chemical cocktail didn't stop there; ROSINA also sniffed out formaldehyde, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon disulfide.
Taken together, it became clear that this comet really stinks. Here's how
a mission scientist described its foul stench
The perfume of 67P/C-G is quite strong, with the odour of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulphide), horse stable (ammonia), and the pungent, suffocating odour of formaldehyde. This is mixed with the faint, bitter, almond-like aroma of hydrogen cyanide. Add some whiff of alcohol (methanol) to this mixture, paired with the vinegar-like aroma of sulphur dioxide and a hint of the sweet aromatic scent of carbon disulphide, and you arrive at the 'perfume' of our comet.
Not only does the comet have a smell, it apparently also has a characteristic noise. Here's what
the "singing" comet sounds like
And then there were the mysterious balancing boulders .
Using the OSIRIS camera aboard Rosetta, scientists caught a glimpse of a strange formation of what appeared to be three boulders balanced in an extremely precarious position on the comet surface. Similar objects appear on Earth, the result of erosion or glacial measures, but how "this apparent balancing rock on Comet 67P/C-G was formed is not clear at this point," noted OSIRIS Principal Investigator Holger Sierks soon after the discovery.
One theory is that cometary activity caused the boulders to move from one location to another, a process that would indicate evolving exo-geological processes on the comet. Another possibility is that the rocks weren't actually balancing, and that the shadows were playing tricks with the researchers.
Thanks to Philae, we also learned that organic molecules exist on the comet-
though not necessarily the kind that can deliver the chemical prerequisites for life
. Organic molecules, i.e. molecules with one or more carbon atoms within it, are abundant in the cosmos, so this discovery wasn't all that revealing. That said,
a study put out earlier this month
Comets like 67P may have peppered Earth with the building blocks of life,
but they likely didn't bring water to our planet
In the months that followed Rosetta's arrival, the surface largely remained static, but things had changed by the midpoint of 2015 . A number of land features disappeared, while others suddenly popped up from nowhere. The scientists weren't sure about the cause, but they said it might have been the result of weak surface materials, which allowed for rapid erosion.
As the comet approached its perihelion (its closest approach to the sun before heading back towards the outer solar system), it started to come alive.
Images taken in August 2015 showed jets sprouting from the comet's surface , spewing 60 to 260 tons of cometary dust with a single shot. For the first time ever, scientists had an opportunity to witness ice as it sublimated and exploded in the form of these dramatic dust-loaded jets. Meanwhile, chunks of ice ranging from a few feet to 130 feet (1-40 meters) in diameter were thrown into space. As the intense radiation from the sun bombarded the comet, fractures splintered across its tortured surface.
Follow up studies
Another surprising discovery was
the presence of actual weather on the comet
Another shock came in October 2015, when
scientists detected traces of molecular oxygen
Even as Rosetta made its final death plunge onto the surface of the comet, mission scientists were busy collecting data. Its final resting place-named Ma'at after the ancient Egyptian goddess of harmony, balance, and order-is a region strewn with boulders and treacherous sinkholes. By exploring this area in detail, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of how comets form.
Rosetta may be dead, and the exploratory part of the mission may be over, but there's still plenty of work to be done, and many mysteries yet to be solved.