Last we heard from the ESA’s spacecraft Rosetta, it was casually orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko after becoming the first craft to land on a friggin’ comet. Since then we’ve watched with baited breath as astronomers lost contact with Rosetta’s Philae lander, but today’s looking brighter – literally. The latest images from Rosetta show the comet making its closest approach to the Sun, and they’re beautiful.
As the comet approaches perihelion the increased solar energy is causing the the comet to shed ice, dust and gas at even greater rates. That makes for some spectacular images, but they come at a price – Rosetta has been forced to increase its orbit in order to avoid damage.
“In recent days, we have been forced to move even further away from the comet. We’re currently at a distance of between 325 km and 340 km this week, in a region where Rosetta’s startrackers can operate without being confused by excessive dust levels – without them working properly, Rosetta can’t position itself in space,” said Sylvain Lodiot, ESA’s spacecraft operations manager.
Activity on the comet has reached its peak, and will likely remain there for the next few weeks as it makes its way around the Sun. ESA Astronomers estimate that the comet is ejecting 300 kg of water vapor every second. This is a thousand times more than was observed this time last year when Rosetta first approached the comet.
As a bonus, however, NASA and ESA scientists can now see parts of 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko’s surface that were previously shrouded in darkness. All told, they’ve identified four new regions on the comet, bringing the total number to 23.
“We aim to go back in much closer again after the activity subsides and make a survey of how the comet has changed. We also continue to hope that Philae will be able to resume its scientific operations on the surface and give us a detailed look at changes which may be occurring immediately surrounding its landing site,” said Nicolas Altobelli, acting Rosetta project scientist.