[meteorite-list] Rosetta's First Peek at the Comet's Dark Side

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Fri, 2 Oct 2015 16:36:29 -0700 (PDT)
Message-ID: <201510022336.t92NaT3S020645_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


Rosetta's First Peek at the Comet's Dark Side
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
October 1, 2015

Since its arrival at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the European Space
Agency's Rosetta spacecraft has been surveying the surface and the environment
of this curiously shaped body. But for a long time, a portion of the nucleus
-- the dark, cold regions around the comet's south pole -- remained inaccessible
to almost all instruments on the spacecraft.

Due to a combination of its double-lobed shape and the inclination of
its rotation axis, Rosetta's comet has a very peculiar seasonal pattern
over its 6.5-year-long orbit. Seasons are distributed very unevenly between
the two hemispheres. Each hemisphere comprise parts of both comet lobes
and the "neck."

For most of the comet's orbit, the northern hemisphere experiences a very
long summer, lasting over 5.5 years, while the southern hemisphere undergoes
a long, dark and cold winter. However, a few months before the comet reaches
perihelion -- the closest point to the sun along its orbit -- the situation
changes, and the southern hemisphere transitions to a brief and very hot

When Rosetta arrived at 67P/C-G in August 2014, the comet was still experiencing
its long summer in the northern hemisphere, and regions on the southern
hemisphere received very little sunlight. Moreover, a large part of this
hemisphere, close to the comet's south pole, was in polar night and had
been in total darkness for almost five years.

With no direct illumination from the sun, these regions could not be imaged
with Rosetta's OSIRIS (the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote
Imaging System) science camera, or its Visible, InfraRed and Thermal Imaging
Spectrometer (VIRTIS). For the first several months after Rosetta's arrival
at the comet, only one instrument on the spacecraft could observe and
characterize the cold southern pole of 67P/C-G: the Microwave Instrument
for Rosetta Orbiter (MIRO).

In a paper accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics,
scientists report on the data collected by MIRO over these regions between
August and October 2014.

"We observed the 'dark side' of the comet with MIRO on many occasions
after Rosetta's arrival at 67P/C-G, and these unique data are telling
us something very intriguing about the material just below its surface,"
said Mathieu Choukroun from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena,
California, lead author of the study.

Observing the comet's southern polar regions, Choukroun and colleagues
found significant differences between the data collected with MIRO's millimeter
and sub-millimeter wavelength channels. These differences might point
to the presence of large amounts of ice within the first few tens of centimeters
below the surface of these regions.

"Surprisingly, the thermal and electrical properties around the comet's
south pole are quite different than what is found elsewhere on the nucleus,"
said Choukroun. "It appears that either the surface material or the material
that's a few tens of centimeters below it is extremely transparent, and
could consist mostly of water ice or carbon-dioxide ice."

The difference between the surface and subsurface composition of this
part of the nucleus and that found elsewhere might originate in the comet's
peculiar cycle of seasons. One of the possible explanations is that water
and other gases that were released during the comet's previous perihelion,
when the southern hemisphere was the most illuminated portion of the nucleus.
The water condensed again and precipitated on the surface after the season
changed and the southern hemisphere plunged again into its long and cold

These are, however, preliminary results, because the analysis depends
on the detailed shape of the nucleus. At the time the measurements were
made, the shape of the dark, polar region was not known with great accuracy.

"We plan to revisit the MIRO data using an updated version of the shape
model, to verify these early results and refine the interpretation of
the measurements," added Choukroun.

Rosetta scientists will be testing these and other possible scenarios
using data that were collected in the subsequent months, leading to the
comet's perihelion, which took place on Aug. 13, 2015 and beyond.

In May 2015, the seasons changed on 67P/C-G and the brief, hot southern
summer, which will last until early 2016, began. As the formerly dark
southern polar regions started to receive more sunlight, it has been
possible to observe them with other instruments on Rosetta, and the combination
of all data might eventually disclose the origin of their curious composition.

"In the past few months, Rosetta has flown over the southern polar regions
on several occasions, starting to collect data from this part of the comet
after summer began there," said Matt Taylor, ESA Rosetta project scientist.
"At the beginning of the southern summer, we had a paucity of observations
in these regions as Rosetta's trajectory focused on the northern hemisphere
due to ongoing communication with the lander, Philae. However, closer
to perihelion we were able to begin observing the south."

Rosetta is currently on an excursion out to about 930 miles (1,500 kilometers)
from the nucleus to study the comet's environment at large. But the spacecraft
will soon come closer to the comet, focusing on full orbits to compare
the northern and southern hemispheres, as well as some slower passes in
the south to maximize observations there. In addition, as activity will
start to wane later this year, the team hopes to get closer to the nucleus
and gain higher-resolution observations of the surface.

"First, we observed these dark regions with MIRO, the only instrument
able to do so at the time, and we tried to interpret these unique data.
Now, as these regions became warmer and brighter around perihelion, we
can observe them with other instruments, too."

Mark Hofstadter, MIRO principal investigator at JPL, adds, "We hope that,
by combining data from all these instruments, we will be able to confirm
whether or not the south pole had a different composition and whether
or not it is changing seasonally."

The MIRO instrument is a small, lightweight spectrometer that can map
the abundance, temperature and velocity of cometary water vapor and other
molecules that the nucleus releases. It can also measure the temperature
up to about one inch (three centimeters) below the surface of the comet's
nucleus. One reason the subsurface temperature is important is that the
observed gases likely come from sublimating ices beneath the surface.
By combining information on the gas and the subsurface, MIRO is able to
study this process in detail.

Comets are time capsules containing primitive material left over from
the epoch when the sun and its planets formed. Rosetta is 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 the formation of planets.

Rosetta is an ESA mission with contributions from its member states and
NASA. Rosetta's Philae lander is provided by a consortium led by the German
Aerospace Center, Cologne; Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research,
Gottingen; French National Space Agency, Paris; and the Italian Space
Agency, Rome. JPL, Pasadena, California, a division of the California
Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the U.S. contribution of
the Rosetta mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
JPL also built the MIRO and hosts its principal investigator, Mark Hofstadter.
The Southwest Research Institute (San Antonio and Boulder, Colorado),
developed the Rosetta orbiter's IES and Alice instruments and hosts their
principal investigators, James Burch (IES) and Alan Stern (Alice).

For more information on the U.S. instruments aboard Rosetta, visit:


More information about Rosetta is available at:


Media Contact

DC Agle
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California
agle at jpl.nasa.gov

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077
dwayne.c.brown at nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo at nasa.gov

Markus Bauer
European Space Agency, Noordwijk, Netherlands
markus.bauer at esa.int

Received on Fri 02 Oct 2015 07:36:29 PM PDT

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