The comet being chased down by a European probe looks a bit like a child's bath toy, new images from the spacecraft reveal.
The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft has gotten its best look yet at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, with which it will rendezvous early next month. And the results are surprising, researchers said.
"This is unlike any other comet we have ever seen before," Carsten Güttler, of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, project manager for Rosetta's scientific imaging system, said in a statement. "The images faintly remind me of a rubber ducky with a body and a head."
The new photos — taken on Monday (July 14), when Rosetta was about 7,500 miles (12,000 kilometers) from 67P — show that the comet's nucleus is made up of two distinct parts. Researchers don't yet know the origin of this strange shape; further study over the next few months could reveal if 67P's "body" and "head" were once two separate objects, they said.
Rosetta launched in March 2004 on a long and circuitous journey to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, whose nucleus is about 2.5 miles (4 km) wide. The spacecraft woke up this past January from a record 957-day hibernation and is scheduled to arrive at 67P next month. If all goes according to plan, Rosetta will then become the first probe ever to orbit a comet.
Rosetta will stay with 67P as the object cruises through the inner solar system, using its 21 scientific instruments to document how the comet changes as it approaches the sun. In November, Rosetta will also drop a lander called Philae onto the comet. Philae will collect samples and take the first-ever photos from the surface of a comet, European Space Agency officials said.
The total cost of the Rosetta mission is 1.3 billion euros ($1.77 billion at current exchange rates). Operations are scheduled to end in December 2015.