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Images from Rosetta Reveal Shape of Comet Quarry

Jul 15, 2014 04:29 PM EDT
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Comet shapes
New images from the European Space Agency's (ESA) comet-chasing Rosetta spacecraft have revealed that its quarry is a fairly irregular-shaped chunk of space ice and rock.
(Photo : ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

New images from the European Space Agency's (ESA) comet-chasing Rosetta spacecraft have revealed that its quarry is a fairly irregular-shaped chunk of space ice and rock.

Rosetta is now so close to the comet in question, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, that the spacecraft's onboard Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) can make out its shape.

"From what we can discern in these early images, 67P is an irregularly looking body," OSIRIS Principal Investigator Holger Sierks said in a recent statement.

Sierks of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany analyzed pixilated images taken of the comet on July 4th, when the craft was a mere 22,990 miles (37,000 km) from 67P.

"Seeing 67P now slowly revealing its own unique features is an unprecedented adventure," OSIRIS scientist Jean-Baptiste Vincent added.

Past analysis has revealed that 67P's nucleus - the solid center of the streaking comet - is only about 2.5 miles wide, showing how remarkably far Rosetta can see. The comet currently only takes up about 30 pixels of each image, but even so, it is clear to experts that the nucleus is made up of three large structures - a form that might change as the clump of ice and rock draws closer to the Sun.

Rosetta compared to its comet quarry (to-scale).
(Photo : ESA) Rosetta compared to its comet quarry (to-scale).

Earlier this year, Nature World News reported that 67P is already shedding about two cups of water a second, according to measurements made by NASA's Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter (MIRO).

Rosetta's 10-year-chase of 67P will come close to its end next month, when experts predict that it will be only 62 miles (100 km) away from the comet - the closest an observational craft has ever been to such an object.

There, it will conduct analyses of the flying space rock that are utterly impossible at greater distances, potentially revealing new secrets about the comet's origins and formation.

You can follow the journey or Rosetta since its 2004 launch using the ESA's interactive mission log.

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