Inside Rosetta's comet

February 4, 2016
These images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko were taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera between August and November 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

There are no large caverns inside Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. ESA's Rosetta mission has made measurements that clearly demonstrate this, solving a long-standing mystery.

Comets are the icy remnants left over from the formation of the planets 4.6 billion years ago. A total of eight comets have now been visited by spacecraft and, thanks to these missions, we have built up a picture of the basic properties of these cosmic time capsules. While some questions have been answered, others have been raised.

Comets are known to be a mixture of dust and ice, and if fully compact, they would be heavier than water. However, previous measurements have shown that some of them have extremely low densities, much lower than that of water ice. The low density implies that comets must be highly porous.

But is the porosity because of huge empty caves in the comet's interior or it is a more homogeneous low-density structure?

In a new study, published in this week's issue of the journal Nature, a team led by Martin Pätzold, from Rheinische Institut für Umweltforschung an der Universität zu Köln, Germany, have shown that Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is also a low-density object, but they have also been able to rule out a cavernous interior.

This result is consistent with earlier results from Rosetta's CONSERT radar experiment showing that the double-lobed comet's 'head' is fairly homogenous on spatial scales of a few tens of metres.

The most reasonable explanation then is that the comet's porosity must be an intrinsic property of dust particles mixed with the ice that make up the interior. In fact, earlier spacecraft measurements had shown that is typically not a compacted solid, but rather a 'fluffy' aggregate, giving the high porosity and , and Rosetta's COSIMA and GIADA instruments have shown that the same kinds of dust grains are also found at 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Pätzold's team made their discovery by using the Radio Science Experiment (RSI) to study the way the Rosetta orbiter is pulled by the gravity of the comet, which is generated by its mass.

ESA's 35 m-diameter deep-space tracking station at New Norcia, Australia, seen during a dramatic sunset, 11 November 2014.  Credit: ESA

The effect of the gravity on the movement of Rosetta is measured by changes in the frequency of the spacecraft's signals when they are received at Earth. It is a manifestation of the Doppler effect, produced whenever there is movement between a source and an observer, and is the same effect that causes emergency vehicle sirens to change pitch as they pass by.

In this case, Rosetta was being pulled by the gravity of the comet, which changed the frequency of the radio link to Earth. ESA's 35-metre antenna at the New Norcia ground station in Australia is used to communicate with Rosetta during routine operations. The variations in the signals it received were analysed to give a picture of the across the comet. Large internal caverns would have been noticeable by a tell-tale drop in acceleration.

ESA's Rosetta mission is the first to perform this difficult measurement for a comet.

"Newton's law of gravity tells us that the Rosetta spacecraft is basically pulled by everything," says Martin Pätzold, the principal investigator of the RSI experiment.

"In practical terms, this means that we had to remove the influence of the Sun, all the planets – from giant Jupiter to the dwarf planets – as well as large asteroids in the inner asteroid belt, on Rosetta's motion, to leave just the influence of the comet. Thankfully, these effects are well understood and this is a standard procedure nowadays for spacecraft operations."

Next, the pressure of the solar radiation and the comet's escaping gas tail has to be subtracted. Both of these 'blow' the spacecraft off course. In this case, Rosetta's ROSINA instrument is extremely helpful as it measures the gas that is streaming past the spacecraft. This allowed Pätzold and his colleagues to calculate and remove those effects too.

Whatever motion is left is due to the comet's mass. For Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, this gives a mass slightly less than 10 billion tonnes. Images from the OSIRIS camera have been used to develop models of the comet's shape and these give the volume as around 18.7 km3, meaning that the density is 533 kg/m3.

Extracting the details of the interior was only possible through a piece of cosmic good luck.

Given the lack of knowledge of the comet's activity, a cautious approach trajectory had been designed to ensure the spacecraft's safety. Even in the best scenario, this would bring Rosetta no closer than 10 km.

Unfortunately, prior to 2014, the RSI team predicted that they needed to get closer than 10 km to measure the internal distribution of the comet. This was based on ground-based observations that suggested the comet was round in shape. At 10 km and above, only the total mass would be measurable.

Then the comet's strange shape was revealed as Rosetta drew nearer. Luckily for RSI, the double-lobed structure meant that the differences in the gravity field would be much more pronounced, and therefore easier to measure from far away.

"We were already seeing variations in the gravity field from 30 km away," says Pätzold.

When Rosetta did achieve a 10 km orbit, RSI was able to gather detailed measurements. This is what has given them such high confidence in their results, and it could get even better.

In September, Rosetta will be guided to a controlled impact on the surface of the comet. The manoeuvre will provide a unique challenge for the flight dynamics specialists at ESA's European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. As Rosetta gets nearer and nearer the complex gravity field of the will make navigating harder and harder. But for RSI, its measurements will increase in precision. This could allow the team to check for caverns just a few hundred metres across.

Explore further: Image: Rosetta selfie 16 km from comet

More information: M. Pätzold et al. A homogeneous nucleus for comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko from its gravity field, Nature (2016). DOI: 10.1038/nature16535

Related Stories

Image: Rosetta selfie 16 km from comet

October 15, 2014

Using the CIVA camera on Rosetta's Philae lander, the spacecraft have snapped a 'selfie' at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko from a distance of about 16 km from the surface of the comet. The image was taken on 7 October ...

Europe's Rosetta craft swoops for close look at comet

February 14, 2015

The European Space Agency has sent its Rosetta probe in for a close look at the comet it's been tracking for months, a swoop that scientists hope will provide them with detailed measurements and photos of its surface.

Image: Rosetta's comet looms

August 28, 2014

Wow! Rosetta is getting ever-closer to its target comet by the day. This navigation camera shot from Aug. 23 shows that the spacecraft is so close to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that it's difficult to fit the entire 2.5-mile ...

Recommended for you

Hubble catches a transformation in the Virgo constellation

December 9, 2016

The constellation of Virgo (The Virgin) is especially rich in galaxies, due in part to the presence of a massive and gravitationally-bound collection of over 1300 galaxies called the Virgo Cluster. One particular member of ...

Khatyrka meteorite found to have third quasicrystal

December 9, 2016

(—A small team of researchers from the U.S. and Italy has found evidence of a naturally formed quasicrystal in a sample obtained from the Khatyrka meteorite. In their paper published in the journal Scientific Reports, ...

Scientists sweep stodgy stature from Saturn's C ring

December 9, 2016

As a cosmic dust magnet, Saturn's C ring gives away its youth. Once thought formed in an older, primordial era, the ring may be but a mere babe – less than 100 million years old, according to Cornell-led astronomers in ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3.5 / 5 (8) Feb 04, 2016
Another Electric Universe fail.
5 / 5 (3) Feb 04, 2016
Thornhill & Talbott: "They are simply "asteroids on eccentric orbits."'

Always makes me laugh. You'd have thought that they would have checked out a few actual asteroids on eccentric orbits, before coming up with that pearl of wisdom.
1.8 / 5 (5) Feb 04, 2016
Another Electric Universe fail.

How exactly do you figure?

This was based on ground-based observations that suggested the comet was round in shape.

Now that's a fail...
not rated yet Feb 04, 2016
Density g / cm3 Melting point C Boiling point C. C
1 Nitrogen (liquid) 0.808 -210 -195.795
2 Methane (liquid) 0.42 -182.5 -161.49
3 propionaldehyde 0.81 -81 46-50
4 Meti lizocijanata 0,923 -45 38
5 Acetamide 1,159 79-81 221.2
6 Propane 2.0098 -187.7 -42.25
7 Ethane 1.3562 -182.8 -88.5
8 Ice (water) from 0.92 to 0.93 (-180) 0 0
9 Hydrogen (liquid / solid) 0.9167 0.934 -259.16 -252.879
10 Helium (liquid) 0,145 -272,2 -268.928
Titan, Wikipedia
5 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2016
Another Electric Universe fail.

How exactly do you figure?

Due to everything EU has said about comets being wrong from Day 1.
The latest findings they will have to deal with involve;
The discovery of the expected, and previously detected (at Halley) diamagnetic cavity. Nothing magnetic in that cavity (and, by extension, anything that would cause a magnetic field).
No solar wind getting anywhere near the nucleus for months. Started to disappear in April 2015. Only returned recently.
Indications of the bow shock.
Study of CMEs and their effects on the coma. And even they aren't making it to the nucleus.
Further identifications of H2O ice on the surface.
And, goes without saying, the total lack of any electric woo as required by the geniuses T & T.


Wish someone could tell me why this hasn't turned into a comet: https://en.wikipe...Toutatis

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.