The Sciences

A Comet is Born

ImaGeo iconImaGeoBy Tom YulsmanMay 16, 2014 6:37 AM
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This animation of images from the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft shows comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko moving against the background star field. Image (Source: ESA/Rosetta/MPS) Actually, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is not at all newborn. In fact, being made of material left over from the origin of the solar system more than 4 billion years ago, it has been around (and around and around, literally...) for a very long time. But now, as it gets ever closer to the sun, it is becoming animated. And you can see it in the animation of images above from the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft — which is headed for a rendezvous with the comet in August. Rosetta will then escort Comet 67P around the sun and in November deploy a lander named Philae to touch down on its surface, which will be a first. By the end of the sequence of images above, taken between March 24 and May 4, Comet 67P has gotten close enough to the sun (373 million miles away, or four times the distance between Earth and sun!) for the increasing warmth to cause icy material on its surface to turn into gas and escape into space. As this happens, the gas carries with it a mass of expanding dust particles. The result is a dusty veil, called a "coma," that you can see growing around the comet. Eventually, it will form a classic comet tail. As it was capturing the images, Rosetta pulled ever closer to 67P, moving from about 3.1 million miles to 1.2 million miles away. By the end of the sequence, the comet’s coma extends about 800 miles into space. The nucleus itself is only about 2.5 miles across.

Check out this video for a really cool explanation of the Rosetta mission and Philae's planned landing on it surface. Why go to all this trouble? It turns out that comets are are made of material left over from when the sun and and planets were forming. So the hope is that Rosetta will provide insights into the origin and evolution of the solar system.

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