On 2March 2004 the European Space Agency (ESA) launched an ambitious and exciting robotic explorer into space, and you probably have heard its quite pretty name mentioned a lot lately. It is the trailblazing Rosetta spacecraft and it has been given a task that has seen many before attempt and fail; to get close to and learn more about the earliest believed building blocks in the Solar System, the comets! This patient and quite heavy 3 tonne vehicle has been on a complex journey in order to time its encounter with the lucky comet that will hopefully reveal all to us, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The bizarrely shaped comet nucleus seen from Rosetta. (Image credit: ESA)

The bizarrely shaped comet nucleus seen from Rosetta. (Image credit: ESA)

 

During its ten years in space it has bounced about the Solar System, circling the sun nearly four times as well as chancing its luck traveling through the Asteroid Belt twice, as well as doing some maverick manoeuvres using fly-bys of Mars and Earth to help give a little boost in speed in order to reach its destination at the right time. In May 2014 Rosetta started to apply the brakes with its thrusters so the ten year mission would not end up with Rosetta scorching past the comet and instead find itself sharing the comet’s orbit. The mission so far has been highly successful. After being in deep hibernation in space for two and a half years, Rosetta burst back into life on 20 January 2014 and from 6 August 2014 it has found itself comfortably orbiting comet 67P and keeping it company on the way into the inner regions of the Solar System.  Not content with a nearby seat to the comet show, ESA have a little package hidden on Rosetta. A little lander called Philae which will try to land the on snowy dirtball on 12 November 2014.

philae's selfie of its landing site on comet 67P credit ESA

Philae’s selfie of its landing site on Comet 67P (Image credit: ESA)

 

But the secrets of the comet are not just locked away until 12 November. The Rosetta spacecraft has now been orbiting comet 67P for several months and it has been sending back some of the best images the world has ever received of a comet as well as raising some eyebrows in disbelief along the way!

It’s making scientists go ‘quackers’!(pardon the pun)

Images of 67P in the early days from ground based telescopes led the world to believe its nucleus to be the normal potato-like shape of the average comet but since arriving at the comet, Rosetta have revealed a much odder ‘disney’ like shape! In order words instead of resembling a potato it looks more like a rubber duck! One end of the comet is significantly smaller than the other (the larger being the duck body and the smaller being the head) with a considerably narrow bit in the middle (the duck neck). From close observation the  smaller end measuring 2km by 2.5km by 2.5km and the larger end being 4.1km by 3.2km by 1.3km with a mass of 10 billion tonnes but due to the odd and distorted shape it has taken a while for this information to come out.

Comets are big dirty snowballs….aren’t they?

One of the strangest things so far that has been observed on the comet is its dryness. Comets have often been believed to hold the secret to how life started here on Earth and also hopefully have the information locked away within them to whether or not life is unique to us or if it is possible that comets have furnished other planets with the essential building blocks of life, particularly water or ice. So due to the lovely tails that form when comets come close to the sun which has been widely believed to be melting ice as well as other gases, the assumption has always been that comets would be made of or have a lot of ice on them. But comet 67P looks extremely dry! Scientists had hoped to see lots of patches of ice on the chilly visitor as it is still a good distance from the Sun but instead there is nothing but lots of dry darkness to gaze at. So, so far scientists are a little confused and hopefully when the little lander Philae latches itself on the comet’s surface it will have a front and centre seat to the creation of the comet tail and see how the particles on the comet react when it gets closer to the Sun.

You may need to look twice!

As well as being void of icy patches on its surface, comet 67P is not exactly bright, more so it’s dark, extremely dark, it is actually darker than charcoal and extremely unreflective. As stated above scientists believed that comet 67P was going to a glorious BRIGHT ball of ice due to the fact that it is not close enough to the warmer regions of the solar system to start melting but alas it is duller than a rock! (and less reflective than a rock too!) So it should definitely be interesting to see if it begins to “shine” as it gets closer to the Sun.

Cheops Boulder on the comet. It is about the same size as the Planetarium building, (image credit: ESA)

Cheops Boulder on the comet. It is about the same size as the Planetarium building, (image credit: ESA)

 

Every day comet 67P is getting closer to the sun and there have already been reports of activity beginning in early October with jets of gas and dust spotted sprouting from the dull and dark object’s surface! They have even discovered a pyramid-like boulder on the comets surface that they nicely named Cheops after the largest of the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, obviously trying to be ironic considering this rather ragged lump of rock is only 25 meters high! All this has been only observed so far, so the countdown until the comets ‘harpooning’ with the little lander Philae is obviously desperately nail-biting for the scientific community and world. Fingers crossed that we are less than a month away from finding out the secrets of the early Solar System!

(article by Kerry Scullion, Education Support Officer )


13 Comments

Gary B · November 12, 2014 at 20:25

Kids starving on the world&how much did this waste of time cost&for what?lets spend it on the earth we live on.

    admin · November 13, 2014 at 09:37

    Dear Gary, thanks for your comment. To answer your question the entire mission so far has cost almost 1.4 billion Euros.

    To discuss your point, I cannot agree this mission is a waste of money. This money is entirely spent on Earth and ultimately pays the salaries of the people who use, operate and built (or supplied goods and services to build) the spacecraft. In return, the people of Earth are receiving knowledge and I would say inspiration too by seeing what talented human beings working together can do.

    Governments quietly spend and often waste far larger amount on far worse things than space missions. Have you seen how the US Army wasted $5billion on camouflage uniforms which didn’t work? That sort of scandal deserves criticism before the positive endeavour of space exploration.

    People worldwide lack the necessities of life almost entirely because of man-made policies, that is sad and in the future our descendents will think no better of those who set the economic agenda today than we do of the slaveholders of the past. But I cannot see how cancelling a mission like Rosetta will help the starving. Had it not gone ahead I imagine the money it cost would be sitting in a bank vault somewhere and the world as a whole would be poorer.

    Catherine Coney · November 26, 2014 at 06:19

    Hi Gary

    Unfortunately, while we continue to live in a debt/monetary based society, cost will always be a major stumbling block to any type of advancements. When we finally collapse the system and move to a resource based economy, we will no longer have any barriers to space travel. The Rosetta team have done an amazing job and whatever we learn from this can only advance our goals as a species.
    I know a lot of researchers and scientists and not many of them are rich. Hopefully the discoveries that these dedicated individuals make, can one day help to solve many of the problems we face on this planet. We really ought to investigate our neighbourhood and see what is has to offer for humankind.

    I agree with Admin that the money would have been spent elsewhere, probably wasted on a new type of weapon, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to military spending on wars. Scientists are not politicians, they don’t make policy decisions, and many of them dedicate their lives to seeking solutions to poverty, drought, disease etc. however, they are human and as such they are not infallible. It doesn’t look like Philae will give us much useful data because unfortunately, it was equipped with the wrong tools for the job. Remember that a lot has changed since Rosetta set out on this incredible mission all those years ago, so much has been learnt and observed since then.

    Don’t lose hope Gary, I sense that the end to all the madness is getting close. There is a tsunami of new information coming soon that will advance humanity in ways we can only dream of. Those who try to stop it will be swept away. But I can assure you that those who stand in the way of peace and prosperity for us all, won’t be the scientists and researchers. It will be the same old crowd of bankers, businessmen and politicians.

    admin · December 4, 2014 at 11:43

    Dear Gary, “American taxpayers have spent more than $100 billion on thousands of reconstruction projects in Afghanistan—everything from new prisons, bases and barracks to weapons and airplanes for Afghan security forces.

    The idea was that the U.S. would leave Afghanistan in a better state than it found it. The reality is that military and civilian officials wasted billions of dollars in reconstruction funds on incomplete, botched and unnecessary projects.” (Quote from Here’s How the Military Wasted Your Money in Afghanistan)

    Horrifying scandals like this are far, far more worthy of criticism than more modest sums spend expanding human knowledge.

Catherine · November 1, 2014 at 00:10

I think they’ll find that there is no ice there at all and we can finally dispense with the dirty snowball theory. The people at the Thunderbolts project are not shocked because they predicted this. It is exactly what it looks like. It certainly doesn’t look like a rubber duck, or a dirty snowball. It looks like a hot, dry, blackened, electrically machined rock…because it is.
In fact, we have never seen any comet close up that resembles a melting ball of ice. Why are they even surprised after what happened when they reached comet Hartley 2? Those “glistening boulders” they were shocked to find, were actually electrical charges. Plasma discharges to be more precise.
They have spent untold billions and more than ten years sending Rosetta on a mission, equipped with an ice harpoon, and now they are faced with how to land on a hot, dry, electrically charged rock.
Hopefully, in a few short weeks this will be clarified. Perhaps we can then move on with some real science. Theories that continually fail to make accurate predictions, and which are not based on observational evidence, are fantasies. The never observed Oort Cloud, Black Holes and Neutron stars also fall into this category.

    admin · November 4, 2014 at 12:47

    Dear Catherine, thank you for your comments. Sadly I am going to have clarify or even disagree with a few of them though.

    It looks like a hot, dry, blackened, electrically machined rock

    The comet does look rocky (but is there such a thing as “electrically machined rock”, can insulating materials even be electrically machined?), but it is not in any way a solid lump of rock. We know that because its mass has been accurately measured and hence its density calculated. The density is about 400 kg/m³ which is substantially less than water. The comet’s nucleus would float! It must have a very porous texture, note that this density fits extremely well with a pre-launch estimate of 500 kg/m³.

    we have never seen any comet close up that resembles a melting ball of ice.

    That is probably because we have never been able to send a spacecraft to a freshly arrived from the Oort Cloud comet. Every comet nucleus we have examined has been relatively close to the Sun for centuries so will have lost a lot (maybe most of its volatiles).

    Those “glistening boulders” they were shocked to find, were actually electrical charges. Plasma discharges to be more precise.

    That sounds fascinating, when did the mission scientists announce this finding?

    They have spent untold billions and more than ten years sending Rosetta on a mission, equipped with an ice harpoon, and now they are faced with how to land on a hot, dry, electrically charged rock.

    I would disagree with the phrase “untold billions” as ESA is pretty upfront about the mission’s cost:

    “The total mission cost of Rosetta is close to 1.4 billion Euros of which the total Philae costs are 220 Million Euros (in 2014 economic conditions) including expenses for the one year launch delay. The mission cost covers development and construction of the spacecraft and all of its instruments, including the lander, together with launch and operations.”

    I believe the lander is designed to cope with a range of possible surfaces. Unfortunately I can only quote from memory a programme the BBC did on the mission before it launched. If I recall correctly the narration (by Robbie Coltrane) stated that the exact surface composition of the comet was unknown so the lander’s legs were designed to enable it to come to rest on surfaces with textures as soft as shaving foam or as hard as granite. (Anyone out there know what this programme was and if it is available online?)

    You do know that neutron stars have been observed for more than 40 years? There is also excellent observational evidence that can only be explained by the presence of objects of super high density which only be black holes. If there are no Oort Cloud objects where do long period comets come from?

      Catherine Coney · November 26, 2014 at 04:53

      Hi Admin

      Sorry for the delay in responding to your comments. I have been travelling. I felt so confident that the landing would not go to plan, that I got on a flight to Belfast that day and didn’t bother to take my iPad with me. I’m afraid I’m going to have to clarify and disagree with all of your points.

      Yes, rock can most definately be electrically machined. And I didn’t suggest that the comet was a solid rock, just a rock. Has it occurred to you that comets could be structured like geodes? According to our measurements, the moon should be virtually hollow. Perhaps it is.

      The latest study by The Institute of Technology in Massachusetts reports that the advantage of drilling using high-energetic electrical plasma, is the effective transportation of disintegrated rock. The most common method of electrical machining is EDM (electrical discharge machining) which is primarily used to shape metals, but can be used on any electrically conductive material. These techniques have been around for quite a while now. Machining with electrical arcs produces sharp edged craters, many with smaller craters on the rim, much like we see on many planetary surfaces, including our moon…and comets.
      Plasma physicist CJ Ransom of Vermont Laboratories used a charged plasma beam to machine hematite and you can see the results online for yourself. The result is eerily similar to the shape of comets Rosetta and Borrelly.

      “ESA is pretty upfront about the mission’s cost”

      I used the term ‘untold’ because the costs are still ongoing and because I have read about the costs in many international articles, who tend to give the figures in their local currency. Did I suggest that the ESA were anything less than upfront?

      The lander may have been designed to land on a variety of surfaces, but it was not designed to land on an electrically charged rock. In fact, the landing went just the way physicist Wal Thornhill predicted it would. He had even joked that it might end up bouncing off the comet.

      “That sounds fascinating, when did the mission scientists announce this finding?”

      Thank goodness I don’t hold my breath waiting for the findings of mission scientists. When Cassini flew by Saturn’s moon Hyperion (believed by mission scientists to be a simple inert object), it detected a strong negative charge and received a 200 volt electric shock. This was apparently not discovered until many years later when researchers were checking the data, and then they sat on that information for another 7 years before releasing it.

      “…we have never been able to send a spacecraft to a freshly arrived from the Oort Cloud comet”

      We have also never observed or detected anything resembling the theoretical Oort Cloud. It remains an unproven theory, so we probably never will send a spacecraft to a freshly arrived Oort Cloud comet..because it is only a theory.

      “You do know that Neutron stars have been observed for nearly forty years?”

      Really? By whom? When? Using what equipment? I do know that we have been observing high- energy signals from space that some scientists theorise to be Neutron stars. Despite the fact that these theoretical beasts defy the laws of known physics. You know, that little obstacle called the platform of stability. But not to worry, there are lots of theoretical physicists and mathematicians with lots of new exotic theories to replace shattered ones. New ad hoc adjustments are regularly stuck onto tired disproven ones, instead at looking for an alternative theory.

      Incidentally, which type of black hole are you referring to? There are several contenders for the title of Black Hole. All of them cannot be right and yet they all claim to be based on the same available evidence. Or maybe they just come in all different types/flavours. We can always imagine a new type if the evidence doesn’t fit, can’t we?

      “If there are no Oort Cloud objects where do long period comets come from?”

      Maybe I should ask the BBC. My point is, that stating something as a fact when it is only a popular theory, is misleading at best, and at worst it is dishonest. As a lecturer in a central London college and a member of the IFL for many years I can also assure you that sarcasm and derision are not approved teaching tools and are contrary to government guidelines on education.

      Your article was inaccurate, misleading and lacked balance and should have been more thoroughly vetted before publication. If I wanted the NASA or ESA interpretation, I would have gone directly to their sites as I usually do. Historically, theories that are repeated often enough, are mistaken for facts and then become quoted as facts. They are then guarded and defended against new theories and evidence with an almost religious fervour. However, this does not make them any more factual.

      I was reading an update on Space.com yesterday and noticed how the language is already changing. They are no longer using the term ‘dirty snowball’ to describe the comet. Instead they are calling it an ‘icy mountain spinning in space’ (despite having found no evidence of any ice).

      It actually resembles the terrain of a rocky planet and someone on thunderbolts.com showed a photo of one portion which closely resembled Saw Tooth Mountain in New Mexico? It looks like the blackened, scarred, cratered remnant of a planetary collision. Perhaps it is and perhaps it isn’t. Let’s face it, the Darmstadt team have not even managed to ascertain the surface temperature.

      The Oort Cloud is an extraordinary theory as it lacks evidence. And in the words of Carl Sagan..”extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

        admin · December 5, 2014 at 11:56

        Dear Catherine,
        Once again I am reluctantly having to disagree with you and in some cases ask you explain what you mean.

        Yes, rock can most definately be electrically machined

        Please supply a source confirming this, every source I have found states electrical discharge machining can only be carried out on conductors. Rock generally is an insulator. Comet nuclei clearly have a non-homogenous internal structure, I’m sure we’re dozens of comet missions away from understanding the variety among them.

        According to our measurements, the moon should be virtually hollow. Perhaps it is.

        This is completely new to me, please explain where scientists stated this.

        The latest study by The Institute of Technology in Massachusetts reports that the advantage of drilling using high-energetic electrical plasma, is the effective transportation of disintegrated rock.

        That is true, but has nothing to do with electric discharge machining as far as I can see. Please supply a source which confirms your opinion.

        Machining with electrical arcs produces sharp edged craters, many with smaller craters on the rim, much like we see on many planetary surfaces, including our moon…and comets.

        High speed impacts are observed to create sharp edged craters too, and the Solar System has been observed to contain many fast moving bodies which occasionally collide with planets. Gigantic electric discharges capable of melting parts of planetary crusts have not been observed in the Solar System.

        Plasma physicist CJ Ransom of Vermont Laboratories used a charged plasma beam to machine hematite and you can see the results online for yourself. The result is eerily similar to the shape of comets Rosetta and Borrelly.

        Things that might look the same are not necessarily the same.

        Did I suggest that the ESA were anything less than upfront?

        I apologise for assuming that you meant “undisclosed”, I had been unaware that “untold” can also mean “too large to be counted”.

        When Cassini flew by Saturn’s moon Hyperion (believed by mission scientists to be a simple inert object), it detected a strong negative charge and received a 200 volt electric shock…

        That is an interesting report indeed (see Cassini Caught in Hyperion’s Particle Beam) but I was expecting to hear more about the boulders on Comet Hartley 2 that you said had turned out to be plasma discharges.

        We have also never observed or detected anything resembling the theoretical Oort Cloud. ..

        Where do 2012 VP113 and similar objects come from then?

        I do know that we have been observing high- energy signals from space that some scientists theorise to be Neutron stars. Despite the fact that these theoretical beasts defy the laws of known physics. You know, that little obstacle called the platform of stability.

        Please explain this.

        Incidentally, which type of black hole are you referring to? There are several contenders for the title of Black Hole. All of them cannot be right and yet they all claim to be based on the same available evidence. Or maybe they just come in all different types/flavours. We can always imagine a new type if the evidence doesn’t fit, can’t we?

        Please explain this.

        Your article was inaccurate, misleading and lacked balance and should have been more thoroughly vetted before publication

        I am afraid that this is your opinion not fact. Our articles reflect current scientific consensus.

        And in the words of Carl Sagan..”extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

        Let me list some extraordinary claims. I have noticed that you speak approvingly of the material at the site http://www.thunderbolts.info and Wal Thornhill who authored some of it. Let me quote Thornhill’s own words all from the 2004 article “Cassini’s Homecoming”:

        We cannot simply calculate the density of celestial bodies by estimating mass using Newton’s law of gravity.

        Until recently Saturn was an independent brown dwarf star with its own entourage of close-orbiting small planets.

        The solar system as we see it today is less than 10,000 years old!

        The star at the top of the Christmas tree, covered in lights, is pure Saturnian imagery.

        What then might be the Earth’s history? The distant orbits from the Sun suggest that we were captured along with our Brown Dwarf parent. In the process, the electric power that drove our parent star was usurped by the Sun. As well as turning out the primordial light, the Sun stripped the Earth from its mother’s womb along with the Moon. Night fell for the first time and stars appeared. Ice ages began suddenly. The polar caps formed. High latitudes became uninhabitable.

        Venus was…ejected from the equator of Saturn.

        Titan is most likely a baby brother of Venus!

        Do you agree that these are extraordinary claims? If so, where is their evidence?

Terry Moseley · October 30, 2014 at 15:03

Hi Kerry,

Thanks – amazing photos. But is Cheops really a “lump of rock’? Is it not more likely to be ice, or an ice-dust conglomerate?

Terry

    kerry · November 4, 2014 at 15:08

    Hi Terry,

    Thanks for the coment, apologies I meant the “rock” as a more general description, I naughtily forgot my inverted commas!

    Hopefully we will know by next week exactly what it is made of, definately exciting times ahead!

    Kerry

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