Rosetta's Icy Comet Odyssey Rocks On

Comet 67P by Rosetta probe
(Image credit: ESA)

Rosetta's adventures are not over yet; recent events include taking pictures of a very dusty area, going into safe mode and zooming into a higher orbit above the comet. Here are some of the highlights of the past few weeks:

1. A Dusty Environment

Rosetta was about 20 kilometers from Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko when it took this image on June 1. (Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

In this spooky image from Rosetta, you can see lots of dust flying off the comet. The dust is very apparent close up, but in March officials discovered that the dust trail expands away from the comet for an incredible 10 million kilometers (6 million miles).

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"The long trail is made up of larger grains left behind in the orbit of the comet, probably from several previous passages of the comet around the sun," ESA wrote at the time. "When the Earth passes through similar dust trails from other comets it gives rise to meteor showers. Unfortunately this won't happen with 67P/C-G, as the orbit does not approach our planet."

2. Carrying the Solar System's History

A picture taken of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on March 25, a few days before Rosetta detected amino acid glycine in the comet's atmosphere (coma). (Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

Scientists have hoped that Rosetta will show us a few things about the solar system's formation, such as if comets of its type brought water to Earth (the short answer is no) and what kind of life-bearing molecules could be on its surface. In late May, scientists announced that they had found the amino acid glycine, which they said is common in proteins and phosphorous (part of DNA and cell membranes).

It's the first time that glycine has been definitively found on a comet; while the Stardust mission found the amino acid in Comet Wild-2, those samples were suspected of contamination upon return to Earth.

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"We see a strong link between glycine and dust, suggesting that it is probably released perhaps with other volatiles from the icy mantles of the dust grains once they have warmed up in the coma," said Kathrin Altwegg, principal investigator of the ROSINA instrument that detected the gylcine, in a statement.

3. Going into Safe Mode, and Out Again

A picture taken of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft. (Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

Because Rosetta is experiencing such a dusty environment, from time to time unexpected things happen. Among them was when the spacecrafttripped into "safe mode" on May 28 because it confused the dust with stars, which it uses for navigation. The spacecraft lost contact with Earth for about 24 hours, but the team was able to recover it by sending commands.

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Controllers spent a few days making sure that the spacecraft was okay, which included waiting to turn the science instruments back on from their automatic shutdown. By June 2, Rosetta was well on its way to normal operations, with the science instruments on and an orbital maneuver set to go.

4. Into the Black

Rosetta continues to produce stunning imagery after nearly two years at the comet. (Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

At roughly 670 days into its mission, Rosetta continues to produce amazing imagery of its comet -- such as this one focusing on the "neck" region (in shadow), when the spacecraft was roughly 8 kilometers away from the nucleus. As of this week, the spacecraft is now zooming to a 30 kilometer orbit from its previous orbit of five kilometers.

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Rosetta's other recent findings include uncovering clathrates (a crystalline type of ice). It is believed that if Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is covered with ices of this type, it could have formed from ice fragments closer to the sun.

5. Asking the Public For Help

Surface changes that Rosetta scientists saw in the Imhotep region in 2015. (Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

Since Rosetta arrived at Comet 67P/Chruymov-Gerasimenko, more than 20,000 images have been posted for public consumption. In a request to use the wisdom of the crowd, officials are now asking that if the public sees anything changing on the comet's surface, they submit their ideas to this web page for possible future blog posts.

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"Do remember to be cautious when comparing images of the same region that have been taken under varying illumination conditions, or from different distances and therefore have a different scale – this can sometimes lead to mistaken identification," ESA wrote.

Originally published on Discovery News.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: