What is the structure of a comet? What is its tail made of and where does it come from? Together we uncover explanations for this fascinating phenomenon:
Water, rock dust and soot form the basis for our artificial comet material, which we will lock in a vacuum chamber that also contains an artificial sun. You will be surprised to see what happens!
Comets – still mysterious
A comet nucleus. Credit: NASA
Even though comets are still unusual and impressive phenomena, nowadays they are not (usually?) regarded as heralds of the apocalypse or as symbols of the divine.
Comet nuclei were formed around 4.6 billion years ago in the early solar nebula of our solar system, beyond the orbits of the outer dwarf planets and far away from our Sun. They hold material from the time that our solar system formed and that has not changed since – in this respect they are unique. Scientists are therefore very interested in finding out what comet nuclei are made of – as, ultimately, we developed out of this material ourselves.
Comets in a laboratory?
Students using our artificial comet equipment. Credit: DLR
If we want to learn more about comets, then we cannot wait until comet dust falls to earth in the form of a shooting star. In any case, most of the material would burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere – anything left over would be practically impossible to find. We need to send probes to comets (find out more here). But in planning missions like this we need a lot of information too: is a comet’s surface hard or soft? Would a lander sink into dust? Should we build a drill or a scoop to pick up samples on the comet? Would a robot even be able to stand on a comet?
The experiments you will be doing in the DLR_School_Lab were carried out by the Institute of Space Simulation as part of the preparation for the Rosetta Mission. Not until 2014, when the Rosetta probe detaches its lander “Philae” to land on the surface of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, will we know if our assumptions are correct.