Researchers Discover that Rosetta's Comet 67P Has Its Own Weather System

Friday, 25 September 2015 - 4:10AM
Friday, 25 September 2015 - 4:10AM
It may only be roughly the size of the first Death Star from Star Wars, but Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko has just been found to have its own weather systems, a finding that has shocked the researchers investigating the comet. Comet 67P is currently playing host to ESA's Rosetta spacecraft and Philae lander, and with every orbit of the comet Rosetta is shedding more and more light on the conditions that exist on this most-famous of space rocks. 

New research published in the journal Nature has shown that intense day/night cycles have created miniature weather systems that buffet the surface of the 4km wide comet. Earlier this year, an ice field was detected by one of Rosetta's many science instruments. Located at the 'neck' of Comet 67P, the ice patch rapidly converts into water vapor as the sun hits it, rapidly warming it up from its brutally cold former state. As the neck rotates back out of the sun's gaze, the surface cools and the ice field grows once more.

But whereas on Earth this warming and cooling would see rain falling back to the planet's surface, Comet 67P is hurtling through space at around 135,000 km/h (84,000 mph) and the water vapor is being whipped away from its surface. If the water vapor is being stripped from the comet before it can freeze again, there must be another source of water on the comet that allows the ice sheet to replenish with each cycle. The research team theorize that Comet 67Ps ice sheet is being replenished from cracks in the comets surface that grow as the sun's rays hit the comet's surface.

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"It's not a surprise that the comet contains ice, but direct evidence of water on the surface is a real novelty," said the Max Planck Institute's Holger Sierks
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These latest findings, and Seirks's reaction to them go to show just how little we know about these objects that are so abundant in our solar system. It's hoped that research leading to the understanding of Comet 67Ps primitive weather systems can help researchers learn more about Earth's earliest water systems, which emerged during our planet's turbulent early years.

But as Comet 67P hurtles closer to the sun, the Rosetta spacecraft is keeping its distance from its target, which means future findings will have to wait. Luckily, the Rosetta/Philae mission has just been extended through to late 2016, so there is still plenty of time to get the probe closer to Comet 67Ps surface.


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