See the image above? It’s the surface of a comet. Pretty cool. See the dark spot along the bottom? It’s the shadow of the spacecraft that took the image of the comet.
On Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015, the Rosetta spacecraft performed a bit of a barnstorming act, swooping low over the surface of comet 67P/C-G in the first dedicated close pass of its mission. It came within a scant 6 km (3.7 miles) of the comet’s surface at 12:41 GMT. The image above is a mosaic of four individual NavCam images acquired just shortly afterwards, when Rosetta was about 8.9 km from the comet.
Higher-resolution OSIRIS images should be downlinked from the spacecraft within the next few days.
The view above looks across much of the Imhotep region along the flat bottom of comet 67P’s larger lobe. (See a map of 67P’s named regions here.) At the top is the flat “plain” where the Cheops boulder cluster can be seen – the largest of which, Cheops itself, is 45 meters (148 feet) across.
After the close pass Rosetta headed out to a distance of about 253 km (157 miles) before beginning preparations to approach closer again. Over the course of Rosetta’s mission this year flybys will be the “new normal,” but none will be as close as the Feb. 14 pass.
Watch a video from ESA about the close pass below, and find more images from the flyby in my article on Universe Today here.
Many of the images we have been seeing of Rosetta’s comet – 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, or 67P for short – have been captured with the spacecraft’s NavCam instrument. And while they have been amazingly beautiful in their own right, NavCam isn’t Rosetta’s best camera; that distinction goes to OSIRIS, the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System experiment that captures both wide- and narrow-angle high resolution images for scientific study.
Now OSIRIS images of 67P have been few and far between since Rosetta arrived, mostly because the instrument is not run by ESA but rather by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany and a rather large international consortium of research groups, and they have first access to the data and decide when images will become publicly available. While it’s very common in space science to allow time for researchers to work privately with their own data for a period of time before it gets spread around, it can be frustrating for those who know there are fantastic images waiting to be seen (of, say, the surface of a comet) that are just out of reach!
So today the OSIRIS team threw us all a few bones, images that show the surface of 67P in stunning detail that the hardworking but lower-resolution NavCam could never deliver. Above is one, and there are even more below – check ‘em out!
Many of the images we’ve been seeing of the craggy surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as incredible as they are, are still monochrome. Now Rosetta’s OSIRIS team has released a true-color image of the comet taken with it high-res science imaging instrument… but even then it’s still pretty much grey.
On Wednesday, Nov. 12 2014, after over ten years and literally hundreds of millions of miles of travel, ESA’s Rosetta mission successfully put its Philae lander down on the surface of a tumbling comet 316 million miles from Earth. While Philae’s long-awaited landing was deemed a success, if just in that all primary mission science data was returned for its on-board experiments, it didn’t go without some hitches: while Philae did in fact touch down on comet 67P/C-G almost exactly where planned its dual harpoons failed to fire, causing the 220-pound robot to rebound off the comet’s surprisingly hard surface and soar to another location… twice.
Unfortunately how Philae finally came to rest was at a tilt within a shadowed location, its solar panels shielded from the Sun. So once it began its science observations and communicating its findings with Rosetta orbiting nine miles overhead, Philae’s battery quickly ran out of voltage, eventually putting the robot into a low-power hibernation mode. But during Philae’s approach and initial bounce off the comet’s surface Rosetta’s OSIRIS imaging instrument captured it on camera – sort of a cometary version of “Where’s Waldo?” Check out the images above.
History has been made! At 11:03 a.m. EST / 16:03 UTC today, Nov. 12 2014, during an event telecast live online, ESA received confirmation from its Philae lander that it successfully touched down and attached to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, currently 509.5 million km (316 million miles) from Earth. It is the first time a human-made spacecraft has ever soft-landed on a comet… a truly momentous accomplishment! This is a real testament to the capability of teams of people across the world working together to achieve something amazing for the sake of science and knowledge. Go Philae! Congratulations ESA!
“How audacious! How exciting! How unbelievable to be able to land on a comet!” said Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Director on location at ESA Operations Center in Germany during the landing event.
UPDATE: The image above is a mosaic of two images taken by one of Philae’s three CIVA (Comet Infrared and Visible Analyzer) cameras from its final landing position. Philae’s “foot” can be seen in the lower foreground. That’s basically like you standing on the comet and looking down at your feet!
Unfortunately the news is not all good… read more below.