Rosetta Spacecraft's Comet Companion Is Spouting Jets (Photo)

Jets Erupting on Comet 67P, Sept. 26, 2014
An image taken by ESA's Rosetta probe on Sept. 26, 2014 shows jets of dust and gas escaping from the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM)

A European spacecraft's comet companion is starting to wake up as it gets closer and closer to the sun.

The European Space Agency's Rosetta probe, which arrived in orbit around Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August after a 10-year deep-space chase, has photographed jets of gas and dust erupting from the icy wanderer's surface.

"The main talking point of this image is the spectacular region of activity at the neck of 67P/C-G," European Space Agency (ESA) officials wrote in a description of the photo, a four-image montage taken on Sept. 26 when Rosetta was 16 miles (26 kilometers) from the comet.

"What we’re seeing is the product of ices sublimating and gases escaping from inside the comet, carrying streams of dust out into space," they added. "As the comet gets progressively closer to the sun along its orbit, the surface will become warmer, and the level of activity will increase, producing a vast coma around the nucleus, along with a tail."

The $1.7 billion (1.3 billion euros) Rosetta mission launched in March 2004 and took a circuitous path through space, finally catching up to the 2.5-mile-wide (4 km) Comet 67P on Aug. 6 of this year. On that date, Rosetta became the first probe ever to orbit a comet.

Rosetta should continue studying 67P through at least December 2015, observing how the icy body changes as it approaches the sun. The mission's data should reveal a great deal about comet composition and, by extension, the early days of the solar system, mission team members say. (Comets are "time capsules" of material left over from the solar system's formation.)

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.