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Steam under the hood - an insight into ice patterns on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Komet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

23 September 2015

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  • Churyumov%2dGerasimenko
    Gas and dust streams from the ‘neck’ of Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko

    Since its arrival at the comet, Rosetta has observed jets of gas and dust. Numerous gas eruptions have been observed originating from the ‘neck’ of the comet. Using the measurements performed by the VIRTIS spectrometer, it has been possible to recognise a day/night cycle of cometary activity and identify the mechanism responsible.

  • VIRTIS images mapping ice distribution and temperature

    These images, derived from data acquired by the VIRTIS spectrometer on 12, 13 and 14 September 2014 in the visible and near-infrared parts of the spectrum (left column) show that cometary activity depends directly on the temperature underneath the surface of the comet. The white and blue areas in the centre column reveal the highest concentrations of ice (one to five percent and higher); dark blue shows the lowest concentrations (zero to one percent). The images in the right column show the temperatures, which were between minus 130 degrees Celsius and minus 60 degree Celsius.

  • Cycles of evaporation and freezing

    The sources and mechanisms of cometary activity are not yet fully understood. Measurements made using the VIRTIS spectrometer on board Rosetta have been able to show that, at certain times, water vapour flows from the comet’s interior and then freezes on the surface of the shadowed ‘night’ side of the comet. During the following comet ‘day’, the ice evaporates and the vapour escapes into space.

  • 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.

Comets are impressive phenomena in the night sky. As their orbit brings them into the inner Solar System, their icy cores heat up, setting gas and dust free. The escaping gases, primarily derived from water ice, can also carry dust particles that form the coma and cometary tail. In September 2014, the European Rosetta spacecraft investigated the early activity of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. At that time, local gas and dust jets were accompanied by daily recurring water ice patterns on the 'neck' of the comet. This was revealed by the observations performed by the Visible and InfraRed Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS), which have now been evaluated.

"How and where exactly the sources of cometary activity arise has been a largely unsolved mystery in comet research," says Gabriele Arnold from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), responsible for the German scientific contributions to the VIRTIS instrument. The discovery of the ice patterns proves that, at certain times of the cometary day, water vapour flows from the comet interior to the surface, freezes in the shadowed regions, sublimates when exposed to sunlight and finally escapes into space. The international VIRTIS research team reports on this discovery in the current issue of the scientific journal Nature.

Water vapour migrates through porous comet material

"When we look at Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, we see an exceptionally dark body with a mostly ice-free surface," explains Arnold. "Nevertheless, the comet is very active, liberating water and other volatile components from its extensive internal reservoir to the exterior," explains the scientist from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin. The researchers soon noticed that the ice patterns followed a day-night rhythm; ice formed as soon as the location of the escaping water vapour was shadowed during the comet's rotation. The researchers concluded that water vapour must arise in the ice-rich subsurface layers, which remain warm due to the sunlight received in the previous hours. Due to this, the subsurface water ice continues to sublimate and makes its way through the comet's porous interior to the surface, where it is deposited. The condensation of water vapour from the surrounding gas envelope – the coma – is not sufficient to explain the ice seen on the surface; this would only be possible closer to the Sun. "Thus, VIRTIS observations have, for the first time, uncovered one of the possible mechanisms driving the comet's local activity," says Arnold.

The comets 9P/Tempel 1 and 103P/Hartley 2 have also exhibited local water ice patterns, which could be explained by a similar day-night cycle. With their discovery, the scientists assume that this process is also found on other comets.

About the mission

The Rosetta spacecraft reached Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August 2014 and, since then, has been observing the comet's increasing activity. On 13 August 2015, 67P reached perihelion, and is now moving slowly towards the outer Solar System on an orbit that lasts six-and-a-half years.

Rosetta is an ESA mission with contributions from its Member States and NASA. Rosetta's Philae lander touched down on the comet on 12 November 2014. The Philae lander is contributed by a consortium led by DLR, MPS, CNES and ASI.

VIRTIS is the Visible, InfraRed and Thermal Imaging Spectrometer on ESA's Rosetta spacecraft. It provides information on the composition of the solid materials on the nucleus as well as mapping their distribution on the surface, and of the gases and molecules in the coma. VIRTIS was built by a consortium under the scientific responsibility of the Institute for Space Astrophysics and Planetology (Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali; IAPS) of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica; INAF) in Rome, which also guides the scientific operations. The consortium includes the Laboratoire d'Études Spatiales et d'Instrumentation en Astrophysique (LESIA) of the Observatoire de Paris (France) and the Institute of Planetary Research (Institut für Planetenforschung) of DLR (Germany). Instrument development was funded and managed by three national space agencies: Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI, Italy), Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES, France) and the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR, Germany). Full support from the Rosetta Science Operations Centre and the Rosetta Mission Operations Centre is gratefully acknowledged.

VIRTIS calibrated data will be available through the ESA Planetary Science Archive website.

Last modified:
25/09/2015 15:11:55



Falk Dambowsky
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

Media Relations

Tel.: +49 2203 601-3959
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

Fax: +49 30 67055-340
Dr. Stefano Mottola
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

DLR Institute of Planetary Research

Tel.: +49 30 67055-335