Churyumov-Gerasimenko – mystery of the 'rubber duck' shape solved

67P im Weitwinkel

28 September 2015

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  • Comet wide%2dangle view
    Comet wide-angle view

    Wide-angle view of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko taken by OSIRIS on 12 September 2014.

  • Schichtartige Strukturen auf Churyumov%2dGerasimenko
    Layered structures on Churyumov-Gerasimenko

    The image on the left shows the Seth region on the larger lobe of Churyumov-Gerasimenko. To the right, terrace structures are coloured green and exposed layers marked with red dash lines. Towards the comet’s neck, the steps between the individual terraces become steeper. The letter A in the picture marks the original landing site for the Philae lander.

  • Detail der Seth%2dRegion
    Detail of Seth region

    This image, acquired by OSIRIS on board Rosetta, was acquired on 22 September 2014, from a distance of 28 kilometres. In the foreground, a terrace-like structure stretches out; a deep pit allows to see the inner layers of the comet nucleus.

Shaped like a rubber duck – this was the talk upon the discovery of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko's surprising shape in July 2014. Scientists were amazed at the celestial body's extraordinary shape, which was revealed by the European Rosetta spacecraft. "It is most likely that two comets collided in the early Solar System, forming the double body that we see today," says Ekkehard Kührt, who heads the scientific involvement of the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) in the Rosetta mission. "In order to explain the measured low density and well-preserved layer structures of both the comet's lobes, the collision must have been gentle and occurred at low speed. This finding provides important information on the physical condition of the early Solar System 4.5 billion years ago," says the comet researcher, who is co-author of a recent paper published in the scientific journal Nature.

Initially, the scientists had two theories – they suspected either a collision of two bodies or particularly intense erosion at the site that evolved into the 'neck'. Analysis of high-resolution images of the comet acquired by the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) on board Rosetta between 6 August 2014 and 17 March 2015 has now provided the answer to the riddle.

One comet, two bodies

In the images, the scientists noticed more than 100 terraced structures on the comet's surface and parallel layers that were clearly visible on exposed cliffs, walls and cavities. Using a 3D model of the comet, they were then able to deduce the directionality and depth of the individual layers. It quickly became clear that although the sheet-like structures are found on both halves of the comet, they have different characteristics. This led to the conclusion that the structures did not develop on the same body. Earlier missions to comet Tempel 1 and Wild 2 had already revealed the layered, onion-like structure of these celestial bodies.

Primordial matter of the Solar System

"Comets are considered to be witnesses to the formation of our planetary system, because they have been well preserved are the remains of material formed in the cold outer regions and have been well preserved due to their small size," explains Kührt. "It was not clear to what extent collisions contributed to the aging. The data acquired by the Rosetta mission emphasises that comets were only moderately changed in this respect, and in fact display very pristine material." In addition, the similar structure of both lobes suggests that these formed in a similar manner.

Since August, Rosetta has been moving away from the Sun with the comet and will continue collecting scientific data with its 11 instruments for another year, until late September 2016.

The mission

Rosetta is an ESA mission with contributions from its member states and NASA. Rosetta's Philae lander is funded by a consortium headed by DLR, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), the French Space Agency (CNES) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI).

The OSIRIS camera was developed by a consortium led by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (Germany), in collaboration with the Center of Studies and Activities for Space (CISAS) at the University of Padua (Italy), the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille (France), the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC) (Spain), ESA's Scientific Support Office, the National Institute for Aerospace Technology (Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial) (Spain), the Technical University of Madrid (Universidad Politécnica de Madrid) (Spain), the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Uppsala University (Sweden), and the Institute of Computer and Network Engineering at the Braunschweig University of Technology (Germany). OSIRIS was funded by national agencies in Germany (DLR), France (CNES), Italy (ASI), Spain (MEC) and Sweden (SNSB), as well as ESA's Technical Directorate.

Last modified:
29/09/2015 08:35:05

Contacts

 

Falk Dambowsky
German Aerospace Centre (DLR)

Media Relations, Aeronautics

Tel.: +49 2203 601-3959
Dr.rer.nat. Ekkehard Kührt
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

Institute of Planetary Research, Asteroids and Comets

Tel.: +49 30 67055-514

Fax: +49 30 67055-340