Comet that could reveal Earth’s beginnings shoots past us before disappearing for 200 years

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko took a decade to reach until the Rosetta spacecraft met it in 2014

Adam Smith
Monday 15 November 2021 11:22
Comments
Explaining the Rosetta mission

A ‘rubber duck’ comet made its closest approach to Earth over the weekend and will now not return to our planet for another 200 years.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko came 62.8 million kilometres close to our planet – closer than Mars – before leaving our proximity until 2214.

The comet first gained notoriety in 2014, when the Rosetta spacecraft approached over the course of a 10-year chase. At the time, scientists involved called it “the sexiest, most fantastic mission ever”.

The ball of ice received its fowl-related description from the fact that the comet appears as two fused pieces of rock that look like the bath toy – albeit one that is approximately 2.6 miles wide.

Rosetta orbited the comets for nearly three years, taking measurements about the comet’s surface and its immediate surroundings.

It landed a smaller craft, called Philae, on the comet to gather information about its chemical composition but not all went well; Philae bounced twice, finally resting in a less-than-optimal area for scientists due to the failure of two harpoons attached to the lander that would secure it to the comet, Space recalls.

“This ice that’s 4.5 billion years old is as soft as the foam that’s on top of your cappuccino, it’s as soft as sea foam on the beach, it’s softer than the softest snow after a snowstorm,” study author Laurence O’Rourke said.

“You cannot just hit it with an object and expect it to move or disintegrate – it would be like punching a cloud.”

The new location of Philae was under a cliff where solar panels could not gain energy for the sun, depleting its reserves after two days – until it briefly awoke in June 2015 when the comet’s angle towards the sun changed.

However, the amount of data collected from the missions make Comet 67P the best-studied of all comets. It helped scientists discover that these celestial objects have their own aurorae, as well as understanding more about the Earth’s own history.

It is possible that Earth was a ‘dry’ planet with water and organic matter seeded here by passing comets, which would make the composition of water on comets the same as that on Earth.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in