Article by the VIRTIS scientists in Nature Astronomy

Rosetta 'post-mission' – new findings relating to the temperature and nature of the comet's surface

26 April 2019

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  • Gemessene und modellierte Oberflächentemperaturen des Kometen 67P
    Measured and modelled surface temperatures of Comet 67P

    (a) Thermal image derived from the VIRTIS data of 22 August 2014, acquired at a distance of 60 kilometres above the comet surface (spatial resolution 15 metres per pixel). The coldest temperatures are shown in dark red tones, while the warmest temperatures are whitish.


    (b) Result of thermophysical modelling (see original paper) for the same period of time as the VIRTIS observations shown in (a). The grey (shaded) colouring indicates points with modelled temperature values lower than minus 113 degrees Celsius, for which neither the VIRTIS data nor the model can provide accurate values. Other spurious grey dots are due to the projection of the data onto the shape model.


    (c) Difference between the temperature values measured by VIRTIS and represented in (a), and the theoretical temperature values shown in (b). In this image, the blue and blue-green colours mark areas of the nucleus where the modelled temperature values are significantly greater than the measured ones, while the inverse relation is indicated by the colours from yellow to red. The green colour shows areas where there is substantial agreement between the observed and calculated data.


    (d) Result of thermophysical modelling with no ice and 10 percent surface roughness. Colour coding is as described above for (a).
    (e) Difference between the temperature values measured by VIRTIS and represented in (a) and the theoretical temperature values shown in (d). Colour coding is as described above for (c).

  • Falschfarbendarstellung der Region Hapi
    False-colour image of the Hapi region on 67P

    False colour image of the Hapi region on Comet 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This region connects the ‘head’ and ‘body’ of the comet. In this image, the differences in reflectivity have been increased to emphasise the bluish coloration of this region. Knowledge about the reflectivity is key to determining the surface composition. The bluish coloration indicates the presence of water ice on or directly beneath the dusty surface. The data used to create this image were acquired on 21 August 2014 with the Optical, Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) on board Rosetta. The spacecraft was 70 kilometres away from the comet during data acquisition.

  • Komet 67P/Churyumov%2dGerasimenko
    Comet 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko

    Comet 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko, imaged by the Narrow Angle Camera of the Optical, Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) instrument on board Rosetta. The image data were acquired on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 kilometres. The resolution is 5.3 metres per pixel.

  • Virtis
    VIRTIS – Visible and InfraRed Thermal Imaging Spectrometer

    With the VIRTIS instrument on the Rosetta orbiter, the temperature, chemical and mineralogical composition as well as the spatial distribution of the elements and molecules found in the comet nucleus and coma were measured in the visible and near-infrared wavelength ranges.

  • Some years after the end of the Rosetta mission, scientists are continuing to analyse the data acquired by Rosetta to obtain important insights for comet research and the study of the early Solar System.
  • Focus: Spaceflight, exploration

Two-and-a-half years have passed since the operational phase of the Rosetta mission came to an end in September 2016. However, scientific evaluation of the enormous amounts of data from the instruments on the spacecraft and the Philae lander is still ongoing. The team of scientists working on the VIRTIS instrument have now published new findings relating to the surface temperature and thermal effects on the 'duck-shaped' Comet 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko in the 22 April 2019 issue of Nature Astronomy. Germany's scientific contributions to VIRTIS are led by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR).

The Visible InfraRed and Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS) acquired infrared images of the comet from on board the Rosetta orbiter during August and September 2014, approximately one year before the comet reached perihelion – the point in its orbit closest to the Sun. During the period under consideration, the comet was still distant from the Sun, and its level of activity was low. The researchers converted the images into thermal maps.

Temperature is the most important parameter for deriving the gas and dust activity typical of comets. First, the VIRTIS team measured the average temperature of the comet's nucleus on its daytime side. While the average surface temperature over the two months was approximately minus 60 degrees Celsius, the scientists also identified places that were significantly warmer, at around minus 43 degrees Celsius. These included a cavity in the surface, where the inner walls reflected the thermal radiation and thus led to stronger warming, referred to as self-heating.

Self-heating also occurs at the 'duck's neck' connecting the two lobes of the comet. Temperatures were higher here than the laws of black-body radiation would imply. Assuming a dust-dominated surface a few millimetres thick and minimal sublimation of volatile substances, self-heating is attributable to surface roughness. The self-heating effect is enhanced by the striking concave shape of the 'neck'.

Another significant finding concerns the thermal gradients caused by sudden shadows cast alternately onto the 'neck' by the two lobes of the comet during solar illumination. These localised shadows on the 'neck' created extreme temperature differences within the space of just a few minutes, which might be 10 times greater than normal daily variations in temperature on other areas of the surface. "To better investigate seasonal temperature effects on the nucleus, we concentrated on a region named Imhotep, which is relatively flat and far from the 'neck', and where the self-heating effect is significantly lower," says Gabriele Arnold of the DLR Institute of Planetary Research. "For this area, we compared the observations performed by VIRTIS with those of the Microwave Instrument for the Rosetta Orbiter (MIRO), another instrument on board Rosetta. MIRO made it possible to measure the temperature in larger depressions on the comet. The findings of the two instruments can be explained by the theory that the Imhotep region has a thin surface layer consisting mainly of loose dust."

Imhotep was also observed a few months later, when the comet was much closer to the Sun. The temperature values obtained by VIRTIS were much higher than before, but lower than expected, given that the scientists were working on the assumption that the surface layer consisted only of loose dust. This led the researchers to conclude that the composition of the uppermost layers must have changed over time. The quantity of volatiles within it must have increased, resulting in a higher degree of sublimation and more intense comet activity. This in turn can cause surface temperatures to be lower than would be reached by a layer consisting solely of dust.

All the observational evidence suggests a comet nucleus with thermal behaviour that is dominated by phenomena associated with the morphology and chemical and physical state of the thin uppermost surface layer, which is only a few centimetres thick. In the subsurface, the nucleus is thought to remain essentially unchanged and has only been weakly influenced by previous approaches to the Sun.

Gabriele Arnold sums up: "The work that has just been published shows that the ongoing evaluation of the large quantity of data acquired will continue to provide unique findings for comet research and the study of the early Solar System, even years after the end of the Rosetta mission."

The Rosetta comet mission

After more than 20 years of scientists and engineers working on the Rosetta mission, the 10-year journey to Comet 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko and nearly two years of scientific data acquisition from orbit and on the surface by the Philae lander, the operational part of the mission came to an end in September 2016; in other words, #GoodbyePhilae.

Rosetta was the first space mission to closely accompany a comet on its journey around the Sun. Among the many discoveries made about Comet 67P, Rosetta performed direct and repeated measurements of the surface temperature of a comet nucleus with an unprecedented spatial resolution. From this, the thermal properties and activity patterns of the nucleus could be derived.


The VIRTIS instrument on board the Rosetta orbiter acquired infrared images of the comet nucleus, which were converted into thermal maps. This allowed changes in the temperature of the nucleus to be continuously studied for almost two months in late summer 2014, around a year before the comet reached perihelion.

VIRTIS has provided information on the composition of the comet's nucleus and the distribution of material on its surface, and the gases and molecules within the coma. VIRTIS was built by a consortium of teams under the scientific leadership of the Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali (IAPS) at the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica; INAF) in Rome, which was also in charge of scientific operations. The consortium included the Laboratoire d'Études Spatiales et d'Instrumentation en Astrophysique (LESIA) at the Observatoire de Paris in France, and the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Germany.

The development of the instrument was funded and coordinated by the various national space agencies: Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI, Italy), Centre National d’Études Spatiales (CNES, France) and DLR (Germany). The mission was supported by the Rosetta Science Ground Segment and the Rosetta Mission Operations Centre.

Last modified:
02/05/2019 16:21:19



Philipp Burtscheidt
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

Media Relations

Tel.: +49 2203 601-2323
Dr Gabriele Arnold
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

DLR Institute of Planetary Research

Tel.: +49 30 67055-370
Dr.rer.nat. Ekkehard Kührt
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

Institute of Planetary Research, Asteroids and Comets

Tel.: +49 30 67055-514

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