'Standing on a comet': Rosetta mission will contribute to space weather research

January 17, 2014 by Nicole Casal Moore
An artist’s interpretation of the Rosetta orbiter deploying the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Credit: J. Huart, ESA

(Phys.org) —A comet-bound spacecraft that's been in sleep mode for more than two years is scheduled to wake up on the morning of Jan. 20—beginning the home stretch of its decade-long journey to a mile-wide ball of rock, dust and ice.

If all goes as planned, Rosetta—a European Space Agency-led mission that involves University of Michigan engineers and scientists—will be the first craft to actually land on a comet as well as track it for an extended period of time.

The Philae lander will latch on to the core of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in November and the orbiter will operate until the end of 2015. No mission has ever attempted such an in-depth look at one of these relics of the earliest days of our solar system.

Engineers at U-M's Space Physics Research Lab built electronic components for an onboard instrument that's believed to be the most sensitive of its kind ever flown in space. And a team of researchers will be involved in the mission science as well.

While most of the big questions Rosetta aims to answer deal with the origin and evolution of the solar system, U-M scientists will make a unique contribution that could provide very practical insights into how the sun and planets interface today.

They'll analyze measurements taken at the comet to study solar wind interactions that can lead to . The solar wind is a stream of charged particles emanating from the sun. Solar storms are bursts of activity that can threaten astronauts and damage Earth's satellites and electric grid.

A simulation of the distribution of dust particles around the comet nucleus, which itself is only about a mile in diameter. Credit: Valeriy Tenishev, University of Michigan

"How the solar wind operates is one of the biggest outstanding questions about the solar system today. By studying how it interacts with cometary gases, we can learn a lot about the composition of the solar wind," said Tamas Gombosi, the Rollin M. Gerstacker Professor of Engineering in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences.

Gombosi and his research group are leaders in the field of space weather. A model they developed was recently adopted by the national Space Weather Prediction Center.

At the sun's equator, the wind travels rather slowly, Gombosi said. It moves faster at high latitudes. Interactions between the two varieties can lead to magnetospheric storms. Earth orbits near the equator, so it's hard to study the fast wind from our vantage point.

"But comets pass through all of it. With their help, we can study the fast ," Gombosi said.

Gombosi and other U-M researchers will be involved in additional Rosetta goals. They'll study and simulate how quickly the comet outgases material from its nucleus to its tail as it rings around the sun. They'll be involved in examining what elements are in the comet's tail, atmosphere and ionosphere, as well as how fast the electrified particles in the ionosphere are traveling.

Michael Combi, the Freeman Devold Miller Collegiate Research Professor in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, is a co-investigator on several instruments. He'll look into the rate at which the comet's core is sublimating, or turning from a solid into a gas, and he'll also work on a team that's analyzing those gases. They'll explore the levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, for example. They can't detect from Earth.

An artists interpretation of the Rosetta mission lander, named Philae, on the core of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It's expected to land in November. Credit: ESA / AOES Medialab

"It's very difficult to observe some of the chemical species when they're far away and faint. Carbon dioxide is probably the second most abundant species at most comets, but it's not been observed in the thousands we've looked at from Earth," said Combi, who has studied comets for more than 30 years.

Comets—small rock and ice bodies—were present in the nebula that spawned the solar system and have been orbiting ever since in far away, cold belts either just past the orbit of Neptune or a quarter of the distance to the nearest star. For scientists, they're archeological artifacts that help them understand how the solar system formed and evolved. They're believed to have delivered Earth's oceans and perhaps the seeds of life in organic materials.

"People use the analogy that it's been in the freezer for the past 4.5 million years and brought in for convenient study. So we're looking as much as we can at the way the way the was 4.5 billion years ago," Combi said.

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko is one of the smallest bodies humans have ever tried to land on. Its gravity is about 1,000 times less than that of Earth.

"On the lander, there's a camera that can look straight down like you're standing up and looking at the ground. Then there's a panoramic camera that can look out and see a picture of the horizon. It'll be fun to see what this landscape looks like," Combi said. "It'll be like standing on a comet."

Explore further: Asteroid Steins in 3-D

Related Stories

Asteroid Steins in 3-D

September 2, 2013

(Phys.org) —Five years ago this week, ESA's Rosetta mission flew by asteroid Steins en route to comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko, where it will finally arrive next year after a decade in space.

Rosetta: 100 days to wake-up (w/ Video)

October 12, 2013

(Phys.org) —ESA's comet-chasing mission Rosetta will wake up in 100 days' time from deep-space hibernation to reach the destination it has been cruising towards for a decade.

Looks like a comet but feels like an asteroid? That's wild!

December 9, 2013

Comet ISON's fate has left many sad. For the public, the comet could have made for a spectacular view in December. For scientists, it would have been a chance to learn more about these mysterious bodies. But why are comets ...

Comet-chasing probe to be roused from sleep

January 16, 2014

One of the most ambitious missions in the history of space goes into high-risk mode on Monday when Europe rouses a comet-chasing probe from years of hibernation.

Recommended for you

Ceres image: The lonely mountain

August 25, 2015

NASA's Dawn spacecraft spotted this tall, conical mountain on Ceres from a distance of 915 miles (1,470 kilometers).

New Horizons team selects potential Kuiper Belt flyby target

August 29, 2015

NASA has selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system. The destination is a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits ...

Dawn spacecraft sends sharper scenes from Ceres

August 25, 2015

The closest-yet views of Ceres, delivered by NASA's Dawn spacecraft, show the small world's features in unprecedented detail, including Ceres' tall, conical mountain; crater formation features and narrow, braided fractures.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.