Astronomy Picture of the Day
APOD: 2016 October 3 - Explore Rosetta's Comet
Explanation: What would it be like to fly around a comet nucleus? To find out, just wait for your WebGL-compatible browser to load a detailed digital model of Comet 67P and then -- go exploring! With a standard mouse, the left button allows you to rotate the comet, the right button allows you to move the comet around, and the scroll wheel allows you to zoom in. ESA's robotic Rosetta spacecraft orbited Comet C67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko from mid-2014 until last Friday, when, after a remarkable and successful mission, it was intentionally set down on the surface and powered down. Among many notable scientific achievements, Rosetta allowed humanity to better understand where comet jets form on comets as they near the Sun.
APOD: 2016 October 1 - Rosetta's Farewell
Explanation: After closely following comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for 786 days as it rounded the Sun, the Rosetta spacecraft's controlled impact with the comet's surface was confirmed by the loss of signal from the spacecraft on September 30, 2016. One of the images taken during its final descent, this high resolution view looks across the comet's stark landscape. The scene spans just over 600 meters (2,000 feet), captured when Rosetta was about 16 kilometers from the comet's surface. Rosetta's descent to the comet brought to an end the operational phase of an inspirational mission of space exploration. Rosetta deployed a lander to the surface of one of the Solar System's most primordial worlds and witnessed first hand how a comet changes when subject to the increasing intensity of the Sun's radiation. The decision to end the mission on the surface is a result of the comet's orbit now taking it to the dim reaches beyond Jupiter where there would be a lack of power to operate the spacecraft. Mission operators also faced an approaching period where the Sun would be close to line-of-sight between Earth and Rosetta, making radio communications increasingly difficult.
APOD: 2016 September 12 - Philae Lander Found on Comet 67P
Explanation: A little spacecraft that was presumed lost has now been found. In 2014, the Philae lander slowly descended from its parent Rosetta spacecraft to the nucleus of Comet C67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. At the surface, after a harpoon malfunction, the lander bounced softly twice and eventually sent back images from an unknown location. Earlier this month, though, Rosetta swooped low enough to spot its cub. The meter-sized Philae is seen on the far right of the main image, with inset images showing both a zoom out and a zoom in. At the end of this month, Rosetta itself will be directed to land on 67P, but Rosetta's landing will be harder and, although taking unique images and data, will bring the mission to an end.
APOD: 2016 February 2 - Comet 67P from Spacecraft Rosetta
Explanation: Spacecraft Rosetta continues to circle and map Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Crossing the inner Solar System for ten years to reach the vicinity of the comet in 2014, the robotic spacecraft continues to image the unusual double-lobed comet nucleus. The featured image, taken one year ago, shows dust and gas escaping from the comet's nucleus. Although appearing bright here, the comet's surface reflects only about four percent of impinging visible light, making it as dark as coal. Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko spans about four kilometers in length and has a surface gravity so low that an astronaut could jump off of it. With Rosetta in tow, Comet 67P passed its closest to the Sun last year and is now headed back to the furthest point -- just past the orbit of Jupiter.
APOD: 2015 November 28 - Rosetta and Comet Outbound
Explanation: Not a bright comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko now sweeps slowly through planet Earth's predawn skies near the line-up of planets along the ecliptic. Still, this composite of telescopic images follows the comet's progress as it moves away from the Sun beyond the orbit of Mars, from late September (left) through late November (far right). Its faint but extensive coma and tails are viewed against the colorful background of stars near the eastern edge of the constellation Leo. A year ago, before its perihelion passage, the comet was less active, though. Then the Rosetta mission's lander Philae made its historic landing, touching down on the surface of the comet's nucleus.
APOD: 2015 November 18 - A Sudden Jet on Comet 67P
Explanation: There she blows! A dramatic demonstration of how short-lived some comet jets can be was documented in late July by the robotic Rosetta spacecraft orbiting the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The featured animation depicts changes in the rotating comet with three illuminating stills. Although the first frame shows nothing unusual, the second frame shows a sudden strong jet shooting off the 67P's surface only 20 minutes later, while the third frame -- taken 20 minutes after that -- shows but a slight remnant of the once-active jet. As comets near the Sun, they can produce long and beautiful tails that stream across the inner Solar System. How comet jets produce these tails is a topic of research -- helped by images like this. Another recent Rosetta measurement indicates that the water on Earth could not have come from comets like 67P because of significant differences in impurities. Comet 67P spans about four kilometers, orbits the Sun between Earth and Jupiter, and has been the home for ESA's Rosetta spaceship since 2014 August. Rosetta is currently scheduled to make a slow crash onto Comet 67P's surface in late 2016.
APOD: 2015 August 15 - Perihelion Approaches
Explanation: This dramatic outburst from the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko occured on August 12, just hours before perihelion, its closest approach to the Sun. Completing an orbit of the Sun once every 6.45 years, perihelion distance for this periodic comet is about 1.3 astronomical units (AU), still outside the orbit of planet Earth (at 1 AU). The stark image of the 4 kilometer wide, double-lobed nucleus in bright sunlight and dark shadows was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft's science camera about 325 kilometers away. Too close to see the comet's growing tail, Rosetta maintains its ringside seat to watch the nucleus warm and become more active in coming weeks, as primordial ices sublimating from the surface produce jets of gas and dust. Of course, dust from the nucleus of periodic comet Swift-Tuttle, whose last perihelion passage was in 1992 at a distance of 0.96 AU, fell to Earth just this week.
APOD: 2015 May 20 - A Cliff Looming on Comet 67P
Explanation: What's that looming behind this gravel-strewn hill on Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko? A jagged cliff. The unusual double-lobed nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko lends itself to unusual and dramatic vistas, another of which has been captured by the Rosetta spacecraft that arrived at the comet last September. The featured cometscape, taken last October and digitally enhanced, spans about 850 meters across. Meanwhile, Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko continues to sprout jets as it nears its closest approach to the Sun in August. Along the way, Rosetta will continue listening for signals from Philae, a probe that landed on the nucleus but rebounded to an unknown surface location last November. If newly exposed to sunlight, Philae might regain enough energy to again signal Rosetta.
APOD: 2015 April 29 - Comet Churyumov Gerasimenko in Crescent
Explanation: What's happening to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko? As the 3-km wide comet moves closer to the Sun, heat causes the nucleus to expel gas and dust. The Rosetta spacecraft arrived at the comet's craggily double nucleus last July and now is co-orbiting the Sun with the giant dark iceberg. Recent analysis of data beamed back to Earth from the robotic Rosetta spacecraft has shown that water being expelled by 67P has a significant difference with water on Earth, indicating that Earth's water could not have originated from ancient collisions with comets like 67P. Additionally, neither Rosetta nor its Philae lander detected a magnetic field around the comet nucleus, indicating that magnetism might have been unimportant in the evolution of the early Solar System. Comet 67P, shown in a crescent phase in false color, should increase its evaporation rate as it nears its closest approach to the Sun in 2015 August, when it reaches a Sun distance just a bit further out than the Earth.
APOD: 2015 February 3 - Jets from Comet Churyumov Gerasimenko
Explanation: Where do comet tails come from? Although it is common knowledge that comet tails and comas originate from comet nuclei, exactly how that happens is an active topic of research. One of the best images yet of emerging jets is shown in the featured image, taken last November by the robotic Rosetta spacecraft in orbit around the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Comet CG), and released last month. The overexposed picture shows plumes of gas and dust escaping numerous places from the Comet CG's nucleus as it nears the Sun and heats up. Although Comet CG is currently further out from the Sun than Mars, its orbit will take it almost as close as the Earth this coming August, at which time its jet activity is expected to increase by a factor of about 100. You've likely seen some debris from comet nuclei before but in another form -- when sand-sized bits end their journey through the Solar System by impacting the atmosphere of Earth as meteors.
APOD: 2014 November 29 - 3D 67P
Explanation: Get out your red/blue glasses and float next to a comet! The Rosetta mission lander Philae's ROLIS camera snapped the two frames used to create this stereo anaglyph for 3D viewing during its November 12 descent to the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet's curious double lobed nucleus is seen nearly end on from a distance of about 3 kilometers, about 1 hour before Philae arrived at the surface. Philae's initial landing site is near the center of the front facing lobe. Part of a landing gear foot cuts across the upper right corner, in the close foreground of the 3D-view. Philae bounced twice in the comet's weak gravity after its first contact with the surface. Using high resolution camera images from the Rosetta orbiter along with data from the lander's instruments, controllers have followed Philae's impromptu journey over the comet's surface and have identified a likely area for its final resting place.
APOD: 2014 November 12 - Philae Attempts Comet Nucleus Landing
Explanation: Today humanity will make its first attempt to land a probe on the nucleus of a comet. As the day progresses, the Philae (fee-LAY) lander will separate from the Rosetta spacecraft and head down to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Since the texture of the comet's surface is unknown and its surface gravity is surely low, Philae will then attempt to harpoon itself down, something that has never been done before. Featured here is an artist's illustration of dishwasher-sized Philae as it might look on Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko's surface, along with explanation balloons detailing onboard scientific instruments. Many people on a blue planet across the Solar System will be eagerly awaiting news and updates. Whether Philae actually lands, whether it lands on a smooth patch, whether the harpoons take hold, and how far the robotic lander sinks into the surface should all become known as events unfold today.
APOD: 2014 October 16 - Rosetta's Selfie
Explanation: This Rosetta spacecraft selfie was snapped on October 7th. At the time the spacecraft was about 472 million kilometers from planet Earth, but only 16 kilometers from the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Looming beyond the spacecraft near the top of the frame, dust and gas stream away from the comet's curious double-lobed nucleus and bright sunlight glints off one of Rosetta's 14 meter long solar arrays. In fact, two exposures, one short and one long, were combined to record the dramatic high contrast scene using the CIVA camera system on Rosetta's still-attached Philae lander. Its chosen primary landing site is visible on the smaller lobe of the nucleus. This is the last image anticipated from Philae's cameras before the lander separates from Rosetta on November 12. Shortly after separation Philae will take another image looking back toward the orbiter, and begin its descent to the nucleus of the comet.
APOD: 2014 September 15 - 62 Kilometers above Comet Churyumov Gerasimenko
Explanation: Spacecraft Rosetta continues to approach, circle, and map Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Crossing the inner Solar System for ten years to reach the vicinity of the comet last month, the robotic spacecraft continues to image the unusual double-lobed comet nucleus. The reconstructed-color image featured, taken about 10 days ago, indicates how dark this comet nucleus is. On the average, the comet's surface reflects only about four percent of impinging visible light, making it as dark as coal. Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko spans about four kilometers in length and has a surface gravity so low that an astronaut could jump off of it. In about two months, Rosetta is scheduled to release the first probe ever to attempt a controlled landing on a comet's nucleus.
APOD: 2014 August 19 - Contrasting Terrains on Comet Churyumov Gerasimenko
Explanation: Where should Philae land? As ESA's robotic spacecraft Rosetta circles toward Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko, a decision must eventually be made as to where its mechanical lander should attempt to touch-down. Reaching the comet earlier this month, Rosetta is sending back detailed pictures of the comet's unusual nucleus from which a smooth landing site will be selected. Pictured above, near the image top, the head of the comet's nucleus shows rugged grooves, while near the image bottom, the body shows a patch-work of areas sometimes separated by jagged hills. Some of the patch-work areas apparent on both the head and body seem to have fields of relatively smooth terrain. In the connecting area called the neck, however, visible across the image center, a relatively large swath of light-colored smooth terrain appears, punctuated occasionally by large boulders. Rosetta is scheduled to release Philae toward the dark mountain-sized comet nucleus with an anticipated landing date in November.
APOD: 2014 August 11 - Rosetta Approaches Comet Churyumov Gerasimenko
Explanation: What does it look like to approach a comet? Early this month humanity received a new rendition as the robotic Rosetta spacecraft went right up to -- and began orbiting -- the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This approach turned out to be particularly fascinating because the comet nucleus first revealed itself to have an unexpected double structure, and later showed off an unusual and craggily surface. The above 101-frame time-lapse video details the approach of the spacecraft from August 1 through August 6. The icy comet's core is the size of a mountain and rotates every 12.7 hours. Rosetta's images and data may shed light on the origin of comets and the early history of our Solar System. Later this year, Rosetta is scheduled to release the Philae lander, which will attempt to land on Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko's periphery and harpoon itself to the surface.
APOD: 2014 August 7 - Rosetta's Rendezvous
Explanation: On August 3rd, the Rosetta spacecraft's narrow angle camera captured this stunning image of the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. After 10 years and 6.5 billion kilometers of travel along gravity assist trajectories looping through interplanetary space, Rosetta had approached to within 285 kilometers of its target. The curious double-lobed shape of the nucleus is revealed in amazing detail at an image resolution of 5.3 meters per pixel. About 4 kilometers across, the comet nucleus is presently just over 400 million kilometers from Earth, between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. Now the first spacecraft to achieve a delicate orbit around a comet, Rosetta will swing to within 50 kilometers and closer in the coming weeks, identifiying candidate sites for landing its probe Philae later this year.
APOD: 2014 July 21 - Spacecraft Rosetta Shows Comet has Two Components
Explanation: Why does this comet's nucleus have two components? The surprising discovery that Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko has a double nucleus came late last week as ESA's robotic interplanetary spacecraft Rosetta continued its approach toward the ancient comet's core. Speculative ideas on how the double core was created include, currently, that Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko is actually the result of the merger of two comets, that the comet is a loose pile of rubble pulled apart by tidal forces, that ice evaporation on the comet has been asymmetric, or that the comet has undergone some sort of explosive event. Pictured above, the comet's unusual 5-km sized comet nucleus is seen rotating over the course of a few hours, with each frame taken 20-minutes apart. Better images -- and hopefully more refined theories -- are expected as Rosetta is on track to enter orbit around Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko's nucleus early next month, and by the end of the year, if possible, land a probe on it.
APOD: 2014 May 23 - Rosetta's Target Comet
Explanation: The Rosetta spacecraft captured this remarkable series of 9 frames between March 27 and May 4, as it closed from 5 million to 2 million kilometers of its target comet. Cruising along a 6.5 year orbit toward closest approach to the Sun next year, periodic comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is seen moving past a distant background of stars in Ophiuchus and globular star cluster M107. The comet's developing coma is actually visible by the end of the sequence, extending for some 1300 km into space. Rosetta is scheduled for an early August rendezvous with the comet's nucleus. Now clearly active, the nucleus is about 4 kilometers in diameter, releasing the dusty coma as its dirty ices begin to sublimate in the sunlight. The Rosetta lander's contact with the surface of the nucleus is anticipated in November.
APOD: 2007 March 1 - Rosetta Over Mars
Explanation: Panels on ESA's Rosetta spacecraft appear in the foreground of this intriguing image of Mars recorded on February 25 at a range of about 1,000 kilometers. Launched in March 2004, Rosetta was near its closest approach to the Red Planet during a gravity assist flyby maneuver and is ultimately destined to rendezvous with a comet designated 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Below the comet-chasing spacecraft lies a dark boundary along the martian Syrtis region. But wait ... who took the picture? The picture was actually captured by the imaging system (CIVA) onboard Rosetta's lander, Philae, switched on for testing. The three-legged, box-shaped, 100 kilogram Philae is scheduled to attempt a landing on the comet nucleus after Rosetta's rendezvous in November 2014.