Images returned from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission indicate that during its most recent trip through the inner solar system, the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was a very active place – full of growing fractures, collapsing cliffs and massive rolling boulders. Moving material buried some features on the comet’s surface while exhuming others. A study on 67P’s changing surface was released Tuesday, March 21, in the journal Science.
“As comets approach the sun, they go into overdrive and exhibit spectacular changes on their surface,” said Ramy El-Maarry, study leader and a member of the U.S. Rosetta science team from the University of Colorado, Boulder. “This is something we were not able to really appreciate before the Rosetta mission, which gave us the chance to look at a comet in ultra-high resolution for more than two years.”
Most comets orbit our sun in highly elliptical orbits that cause them to spend most of their time in the extremely cold outer solar system. When a comet approaches the inner solar system, the sun begins to warm the ice on and near the comet’s surface. When the ice warms enough it can rapidly sublimate (turn directly from the solid to the vapor state). This sublimation process can occur with variable degrees of intensity and time-scales and cause the surface to change rapidly. Between August 2014 and September 2016, Rosetta orbited comet 67P during the comet’s swing through the inner-solar system. … (NASA/JPL)