This spacecraft for the first time captured the footage of the surface of a comet.

Let’s take a second to imagine how an interstellar field trip would be like. Really awesome. What if you and your friends went on a vacation to a comet; such a view would be stunningly awesome — bright stars surround you, with no atmosphere to distort them from twinkling. Here’s the best scenario: If the comet happens to be close enough to the sun, you’d see stunning blizzards of space. This awesome animation from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft captured such an amazing footage on a comet — it looks like you’d be going on a winter vacation.

Related media: Rosetta: Landing On A Comet

Once Upon A Comet

On April 24, 2018, the one-second animation of the Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko was uploaded on Twitter. The animation was shared thousands of times. Twitter users created the animation from raw data posted on the ESA website.

“This is what a view on a comet looks like, among dust, stars and cosmic ray hits,” wrote Twitter user and space news follower @Rainmaker1973 while uploading the video.

On June 1, 2016, the Rosetta spacecraft was orbiting (for simplicity let’s call it) 67P; it had a specific mission: Follow a comet as it gets closer and closer to the Sun. Comets are collections of ice, dust and other space debris loosely held together. They spark into life as solar radiation hits their surface, shedding material off it’s surface leaving behind a glowing tail, and occasionally, the tail is even bright enough for people to see it on Earth.

 

Interstellar Detective Mission

This close up investigation was because of the fact that its very very difficult to predict how bright a comet is. In 2013, astronomers predicted that a comet known as C/2013 S1 ISON (and yes comets have weird names) would get so bright enough to be able to see it in broad daylight. Spoiler alert: amateur astronomers got disappointed when the comet got too close to the Sun, dissipating before the expected show. But what if we monitor a comet with a spacecraft [people reasoned], we can make better predictions about how it will change when it encounters the Sun hitting it’s surface.

That’s sounds like a really good idea, and that’s what Rosetta did, but not only that. Comets are important building blocks of our solar system, comprising of ice and other space debris that contain remnants of what our solar system looked like eons ago. They probably hold the key to understanding the formation of the solar system and the planets. So 67P is sort of a treasure hunt for how our solar system looks like in the past. In other words, its just like looking for someone’s old stuff and trying to figure out their infancy.

 

So What Did Rosetta Discover?

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Image: ESA | Artist concept of Rosetta landing on the Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

Indeed, Rosetta discovered quite a lot of cool stuff on it’s mission. The ice found on 67P had a  different ratio of hydrogen isotopes than the ones on Earth. In other words, maybe the water on Earth didn’t get here via comets; it might be from something or somewhere else. Surprisingly, astronomers also discovered molecular oxygen on 67P, which suggests the comet evolved further away from the Sun than astronomers previously thought — these are just two examples of the surprising discoveries Rosetta revealed about comets.

“Rosetta has completely changed our picture of comets,” says Eberhard Grün, an interdisciplinary scientist working on the Rosetta mission at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Germany, in a statement. “Previously, they were pictured as dirty ice balls — or, as some prefer, icy dust balls — but now we know them, or at least this one, to be geologically complex worlds where a myriad of processes are at work creating the incredible surface structure and activity of the comet.”

For now, Rosetta’s mission is over, but it’s legacy lives on today. Astronomers could use it’s data for further analysis in understanding the formation of our solar system as mentioned earlier. The Rosetta mission also inspired a lot of artwork from the public, ranging from clay animations to music to poetry. ESA even created a Tumblr feed revealing all of these artistic tributes. This raises the opportunity of hope that space is filled with so much relevance beyond our imagination, and science might just help us unravel even more mysteries.

 

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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Wed, Feb 27, 2019.

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