UMD Astronomers to Analyze Surface of Comet as Spacecraft Drops Robotic Probe on It

After sailing through space for more than 10 years, including nearly three years in deep-space hibernation, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft will land a robotic probe on a comet.

A camera aboard the comet-orbiting spacecraft Rosetta took this photo of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, known as C-G, from a distance of about 79 kilometers, or 49 miles, on Aug. 19, 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

Rosetta will come within 22.5 kilometers (14 miles) of its target, comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko, known to mission investigators as C-G, on Nov. 12, 2014, when it will attempt to drop a lander for the first-ever observation of a comet from its own surface. The orbiter and lander are carrying 20 specialized instruments, and the mission is designed to observe C-G for a year or more.

University of Maryland astronomers Lori Feaga and Michael A’Hearn are co-investigators working with an instrument aboard Rosetta called Alice, an ultraviolet spectrograph. Alice is sending back the first observations ever made of a comet’s surface in far-ultraviolet radiation, which cannot be detected by telescopes that rely on visible light. Developed by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colo., Alice is providing sensitive, high-resolution data from the comet’s surface. By viewing a comet up close in far-ultraviolet light, investigators hope to gain new information about this comet’s gases and ices, and to learn more about the evolution of comets in general.  

Sometimes referred to as “dirty snowballs,” comets are primordial fragments of the materials that formed our sun and its planets. First discovered in 1969, C-G has orbited the sun many times and has already burned off much of its original gas and icy material, says Feaga, an associate research scientist. Earlier observations revealed C-G’s size, about 3.5 by 4 kilometers (2.2 by 2.5 miles). But since July, when Alice and other instruments began mapping the comet’s surface daily, it has become apparent that C-G has “two distinct lobes, shaped like the head and the body of a duck,” says Feaga.

Astronomers used to think that bi-lobed comets, the product of two comets colliding or of geologic processes similar to erosion, were rare. But as researchers observe more comets with better instruments, “we’re seeing more of these bi-lobed shapes,” Feaga says, “and we’re realizing how many close encounters comets have had with each other over time.”

As Rosetta gets closer to C-G, Alice and other instruments will show whether there are any variations in color between the two lobes. A color comparison “will show us whether C-G is made of two pieces that formed at the same time in the same place, and were fused together in some cosmic collision back in the early stages of the solar system,” Feaga said, “or whether they formed much further apart and collided gradually, later on, without any great catastrophe.”

Alice’s mapping has shown that the comet’s surface is unusually dark, deeper than charcoal-black, when seen in the ultraviolet spectrum. Because C-G is too far away for the sun’s warmth to turn its water into vapor, researchers would expect to see water in the form of patchy ice on the comet’s surface. But so far, Alice has not detected large patches of ice made from water on the surface.

“We’re a bit surprised at how little evidence of observed water-ice it shows,” says Alan Stern, an associate vice president of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division and Alice’s principal investigator. Alice is one of three NASA-funded instruments aboard Rosetta, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is managing the U.S. contribution to the international mission.

If you're interested in attending our comet landing viewing party on Nov. 12, visit http://cmns.umd.edu/news-events/features/2582.

Media Relations Contact: Abby Robinson, 301-405-5845, abbyr@umd.edu

Writer: Heather Dewar

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About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences
The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 7,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and more than a dozen interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $150 million.

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 9,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and six interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $200 million.