While couples were getting closer this Valentine’s Day, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft was doing just the same — it snuggled up nice and close to a comet.
Rosetta’s comet, 67P/Churyumov — Gerasimenko, is 100 million times more massive than the International Space Station, is travelling 40 times faster than a speeding bullet, and is spitting out jets of dust and debris. Not the most inviting of companions, but that didn’t stop ESA scientists from getting a good look.
The flyby was the closest that Rosetta will ever get to a comet, and the series of pictures it took with its NAVCAM instrument are the most detailed, up-close images we will ever see of the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov — Gerasimenko. The event marks the beginning of a new phase in Rosetta’s mission.
On February 14, the spacecraft came to within 3.7 miles of the comet’s surface — 10 times closer than it did in November when it made history by soft landing the Philae probe on the comet.
The set of images below from that close call are the most detailed ever snapped of a comet.
To help you orient yourself, the largest boulder in the upper right corner of this first extreme close-up is about 150 feet across. Scientists even named this boulder: Cheops. Check out the stark contrast in smooth and rough patches on the surface as well as the many scattered boulders.
Rosetta’s comet is covered with dust and jagged edges. The dust on the comet has built up over time creating a layering effect, indicated by distinct lines in the upper left corner in the image below.
Scientists are not certain of how Rosetta’s comet got that iconic but bizarre dumbbell shape. The two leading theories are: The comet was once more spherical but jets eroded away certain sections faster than others. Or, two smaller, separate bodies smashed and welded together. The fractures and layers in the comet, like the ones shown in the image below, has some scientists thinking that the comet formed by the latter method.
It’s shocking to see such detail in a picture like this of an object that is more than 300 million miles from Earth — more than three times farther than the sun.
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