Rosetta Spacecraft Spots Unique Changes On Comet 67P

Posted: Mar 22 2017, 1:53pm CDT | by , Updated: Mar 22 2017, 1:58pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Rosetta Spacecraft Spots Unique Changes on Comet 67P
Cliff collapse on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko's Ash region. Credit: ESA/Rosetta

Growing fractures, collapsing cliffs and rolling boulders are among the remarkable changes witnessed by Rosetta spacecraft

The latest images beamed back from Rosetta spacecraft shows that comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has gone through radical changes over a short period of time, including widening fractures, rolling boulders and even collapse of entire cliffs.

These kinds of changes are usually triggered by long-term geological activity. But in this case, they occurred fairly quickly, within just two years, suggesting a very intense geologically active period in recent times.

Conversely, these changes are not totally unexpected as comet was reaching its perihelion or closest point to the Sun along its orbit during this period.

“As comets approach the sun, they go into overdrive and exhibit spectacular changes on their surface," said Ramy El-Maarry, lead study author and a member of the U.S. Rosetta science team from University of Colorado Boulder. "This is something we were not able to really appreciate before the Rosetta mission, which gave us the chance to look at a comet in ultra-high resolution for more than two years.”

Comets are mostly made up of gas and ice. When they pass extremely close to the sun, they heat up and begin to release gases. And comet 67P is no exception to that. From December 2014 to June 2016, numerous changes on comet's surface were observed, which are linked to weathering processes, erosion and extreme subsurface pressures driven by exposure to sunlight and variations in comet’s spin.

“Comet landscapes are fascinating. They are sculpted by slow erosion and dramatic outbursts.” Study co-author Dennis Bodewits from University of Maryland.

Rosetta images have shown many incredible reworked features on comet 67P surface like a collapsing cliff in Ash region and a massive boulder in the Khonsu region. The 30-meter-wide and 12,800-ton boulder likely rolled down hundreds of feet before ending up its present location. The movement is caused by either a large amount of erosion of material, allowing the boulder to roll downslope or a forceful outburst that has directly lifted the boulder to the new location.

Among the other most incredible changes was a fracture around Aunket region within Comet’s neck. The fracture was first spotted in August 2014. At the time, it was about 500 meters long but in December it was extended by about 30 meters. And most recently, a new 150 to 300-meter-long fracture has been found parallel to the original fracture.

“We saw a massive cliff collapse and a large crack in the neck of the comet get bigger and bigger. And we discovered that boulders the size of a large truck could be moved across the comet's surface – a distance as long as one-and-a-half football fields,” said El-Maarry.

“The large crack was in the neck of the comet, a small central part that connects the two lobes. The crack was extending, indicating that the comet may split up one day.”

Researchers also note that though these changes were significant, they were not large enough to alter the overall shape or appearance of the comet.

Matt Taylor, Rosetta project scientist for the European Space Agency. “This documentation of changes over time was a key goal of Rosetta's mission, and shows the surface of comets as geologically active, on both seasonal and short transient timescales.”

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