Frozen Comet Fart (Actually a Jet) Caught on Camera

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
The Rosetta mission caught this plume on camera on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in July 2016. Luckily for scientists, the spacecraft also sampled material from the outburst, providing more information about its origin story. (Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

It looks like Rosetta's comet was a bit of a tooter. A fart from the comet — which scientists called "a bright plume of dust blowing away … like a fountain" — likely originated from the comet's insides, maybe from ancient gas vents or unseen ice.

The plume on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was caught by Rosetta, a European Space Agency probe sent to study the comet, on July 3, 2016. (Rosetta's mission ended that September, but data analysis continues.)

"[The plume] lasted for roughly an hour, producing around 18 kg [39 pounds] of dust every second," Jessica Agarwal, lead author of the research and a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, said in a statement. [Eerie Comet Landscape Revealed by Rosetta Spacecraft Photos]

While other plumes have been observed in the past, this outburst was particularly useful because Rosetta snagged a sample of the material, according to the statement. It also got high-resolution pictures of the explosion location, which was a wall 10 meters (33 feet) high around a circular dip on the surface.

"This plume was really special," Agarwal added. "We have great data from five different instruments on how the surface changed and on the ejected material because Rosetta was, by chance, flying through the plume and looking at the right part of the surface when it happened. Rosetta hasn't provided such detailed and comprehensive coverage of an event like this before."

Based on the amount of dust thrown into space, scientists theorized that something beneath the surface caused the rumble. But exactly what remains a mystery. Leading theories include pressurized gas bubbles inside underground cavities, or a trove of ice that burst apart when the sunlight hit it. Rosetta scientists continue to look at data produced by the mission, and to combine the information with computer simulations and laboratory examinations, to learn more about what was really going on.

Top left: A model of Comet 67P highlighting its Imhotep region, where a dust plume erupted on July 3, 2016. Bottom left: An image of comet 67P by the Rosetta spacecraft showing the area. Top right: An image of the outburst captured by Rosetta, with two other images of the region for comparison below. (Image credit: Comet image (left): ESA/Rosetta/NavCam, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO; comet model: ESA; all others: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

"One of Rosetta's major goals was to understand how a comet works. For example, how does its gaseous envelope form and change over time?" said Matt Taylor, ESA's Rosetta project scientist, in the same statement.

"Outbursts are interesting because of this, but we weren't able to predict when or where they would occur — we had to be lucky to capture them," he added. "Having full, multi-instrument coverage of an outburst like this, and its effect on the surface, is really valuable for revealing how these events are driven."

A paper based on the research was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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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: