Rosetta’s Comet: Shades of Grey

OSIRIS images reveal the colour of Rosetta’s comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as it would be seen by the human eye.

December 12, 2014

Like many small bodies in space such as most asteroids, Rosetta’s comet 67P appears grey. This can be seen in images obtained by Rosetta’s scientific imaging system OSIRIS after careful processing. To create an image revealing 67P’s “true” colours, the scientists superposed images taken with the camera’s red, green and blue filters.

“We like to refer to OSIRIS as the eyes of Rosetta”, says the instrument’s Principal Investigator Holger Sierks from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS). “However, these eyes are quite unlike our own.” The imaging system is equipped with several colour filters allowing only light within a limited range of wavelengths to pass through. As a result, the intensity variations seen in OSIRIS images are based only on a small part of the sunlight reflected by the comet. “For scientific questions, these images are superior to those containing all wavelengths”, explains Sierks. For example, the fingerprints that certain minerals or processes such as space weathering leave in the light reflected from the comet can be tracked down this way.

But what is 67P’s “true” colour? To create an image as it would be seen by the human eye, the OSIRIS team superposed three images taken with the red, green and blue filters, a principal also employed in computer and TV monitors. “In the case of OSIRIS, the three images have to be taken one after the other while Rosetta continues to speed through space and the comet’s nucleus rotates”, Sierks explains. The three images are therefore not only shifted with respect to each other, but also taken from slightly different observing geometries. Only a careful superposition can therefore reconstruct such a colour image of 67P. 

“As it turns out, 67P looks dark grey, in reality almost as black as coal”, says Sierks. In order to make surface details visible, the intensity of these images is enhanced, thus creating lighter hues of grey.
At the same time, first analyses show that Rosetta’s comet reflects red light slightly more efficiently than other wavelengths. This is a phenomenon well-known from many other small bodies and due to the small size of the surface grains. It does not, however, mean that the comet looks reddish to the human eye. Since in natural sunlight red components are slightly suppressed, to the human eye both effects together create a greyish appearance.

Long before Rosetta’s arrival at the comet, ground-based observations had shown 67P to be grey on average. However, scientists are surprised that the OSIRIS images taken during the past months and weeks from close-by reveal an extremely homogeneously coloured body even on a detailed scale, pointing at little or no compositional variation on the comet’s surface.

As an example, the images contain no signs of surface ice. Such icy patches would be recognizable as bluish features, thus appearing brighter in the blue filter than in the other filters. As it seems, the comet’s ice is neatly hidden underneath the surface.

Apart from ice, OSIRIS’s 25 filters were chosen to detect certain minerals such as pyroxenes and mineral hydration on the comet’s surface as well as the distribution of different gas species in the coma. Analysis of the information from these filters is still going on.

Rosetta is an ESA mission with contributions from its member states and NASA. Rosetta's Philae lander is provided by a consortium led by DLR, MPS, CNES and ASI. Rosetta will be the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet, escort it as it orbits the Sun, and deploy a lander to its surface.

The scientific imaging system OSIRIS was built by a consortium led by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (Germany) in collaboration with CISAS, University of Padova (Italy), the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille (France), the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucia, CSIC (Spain), the Scientific Support Office of the European Space Agency (The Netherlands), the Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial (Spain), the Universidad Politéchnica de Madrid (Spain), the Department of Physics and Astronomy of Uppsala University (Sweden), and the Institute of Computer and Network Engineering of the TU Braunschweig (Germany). OSIRIS was financially supported by the national funding agencies of Germany (DLR), France (CNES), Italy (ASI), Spain (MEC), and Sweden (SNSB) and the ESA Technical Directorate.

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