Comet’s firework display ahead of perihelion

August 11, 2015

In the approach to perihelion over the past few weeks, Rosetta has been witnessing growing activity from Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, with one dramatic outburst event on 29 July proving so powerful that it even pushed away the incoming solar wind. The outburst was registered by several of Rosetta’s instruments from their vantage point 186 kilometres from the comet. They imaged the outburst erupting from the nucleus, witnessed a change in the structure and composition of the gaseous coma environment surrounding Rosetta, and detected increased levels of dust impacts.

The comet reaches perihelion on Thursday, the moment in its 6.5-year orbit when it is closest to the Sun. In recent months, the increasing solar energy has been warming the comet’s frozen ices, turning them to gas, which pours out into space, dragging dust along with it. The period around perihelion is scientifically very important, as the intensity of the sunlight increases and parts of the comet previously cast in years of darkness are flooded with sunlight. Although the comet’s general activity is expected to peak in the weeks following perihelion, much as the hottest days of summer usually come after the longest days, sudden and unpredictable outbursts can occur at any time – as already seen earlier in the mission.

A sequence of images taken by Rosetta’s scientific camera OSIRIS on 29 July show the sudden onset of a well-defined jet-like feature emerging from the side of the comet’s neck, in the Anuket region. It was first seen in an image taken at 13:24 GMT, but not in an image taken 18 minutes earlier, and has faded significantly in an image captured 18 minutes later. The camera team estimates the material in the jet to be travelling at 10 m/s at least, and perhaps much faster.

“This is the brightest jet we’ve seen so far,” comments Carsten Güttler, OSIRIS team member at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany. “Usually, the jets are quite faint compared to the nucleus and we need to stretch the contrast of the images to make them visible – but this one is brighter than the nucleus.”

Soon afterwards, the comet pressure sensor of ROSINA detected clear indications of changes in the structure of the coma, while its mass spectrometer recorded changes in the composition of outpouring gases. For example, compared to measurements made two days earlier, the amount of carbon dioxide increased by a factor of two, methane by four, and hydrogen sulphide by seven, while the amount of water stayed almost constant.  

“This first ‘quick look’ at our measurements after the outburst is fascinating,” says Kathrin Altwegg, ROSINA principal investigator at the University of Bern. “We also see hints of heavy organic material after the outburst that might be related to the ejected dust. “But while it is tempting to think that we are detecting material that may have been freed from beneath the comet's surface, it is too early to say for certain that this is the case.”

Meanwhile, about 14 hours after the outburst, GIADA was detecting dust hits at rates of 30 per day, compared with just 1–3 per day earlier in July. A peak of 70 hits was recorded in one 4-hour period on 1 August, indicating that the outburst continued to have a significant effect on the dust environment for the following few days.

“It was not only the abundance of the particles, but also their speeds measured by GIADA that told us something ‘different’ was happening: the average particle speed increased from 8 m/s to about 20 m/s, with peaks at 30 m/s – it was quite a dust party!” says Alessandra Rotundi, principal investigator at the University of Naples, Italy.

Perhaps the most striking result is that the outburst was so intense that it actually managed to push the solar wind away from the nucleus for a few minutes – a unique observation made by the Rosetta Plasma Consortium’s magnetometer. The solar wind is the constant stream of electrically charged particles that flows out from the Sun, carrying its magnetic field out into the Solar System. Earlier measurements made by Rosetta and Philae had already shown that the comet is not magnetised, so the only source for the magnetic field measured around it is the solar wind. But it doesn’t flow past unimpeded. Because the comet is spewing out gas, the incoming solar wind is slowed to a standstill where it encounters that gas and a pressure balance is reached.

“The solar wind magnetic field starts to pile up, like a traffic jam, and eventually stops moving towards the comet nucleus, creating a magnetic field-free region on the Sun-facing side of the comet called a ‘diamagnetic cavity’,” explains Charlotte Götz, magnetometer team member at the Institute for Geophysics and extraterrestrial Physics in Braunschweig, Germany. Diamagnetic cavities provide fundamental information on how a comet interacts with the solar wind, but the only previous detection of one associated with a comet was made at about 4000 kilometres from Comet Halley as ESA’s Giotto flew past in 1986. 

Rosetta’s comet is much less active than Halley, so scientists expected to find a much smaller cavity around it, up to a few tens of kilometres at most, and prior to 29 July, had not observed any sign of one. But, following the outburst on that day, the magnetometer detected a diamagnetic cavity extending out at least 186 km from the nucleus. This was likely created by the outburst of gas, which increased the neutral gas flux in the comet’s coma, forcing the solar wind to ‘stop’ further away from the comet and thus pushing the cavity boundary outwards beyond where Rosetta was flying at the time. “Finding a magnetic field-free region anywhere in the Solar System is really hard, but here we’ve had it served to us on a silver platter – this is a really exciting result for us,” adds Charlotte.

“We’ve been moving Rosetta out to distances of up to 300 km in recent weeks to avoid problems with navigation caused by dust, and we had considered that the diamagnetic cavity was out of our grasp for the time being. But it seems that the comet has helped us by bringing the cavity to Rosetta,” says Matt Taylor, Rosetta Project Scientist. “This is a fantastic multi-instrument event which will take time to analyse, but highlights the exciting times we’re experiencing at the comet in this ‘hot’ perihelion phase.”

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 is 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.

The instrument package ROSINA (Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis) was developed and built by an international consortium led by the Space Research and Planetary Sciences Division of the University of Bern. The University of Bern provides the Principal Investigator of the ROSINA team, Kathrin Altwegg. The hardware components have been provided by the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (Brussels, Belgium), the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (Toulouse, France), the Institute Pierre Simon Laplace (Paris, France), the Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center (Palo Alto, USA), the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (Goettingen, Germany), the Institute of Computer and Network Engineering at the TU Braunschweig (Braunschweig, Germany) und der University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, USA).

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