Seasonal exposure of carbon dioxide ice on the nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

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Science  23 Dec 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6319, pp. 1563-1566
DOI: 10.1126/science.aag3161

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Rosetta observes sublimating surface ices

Comets are “dirty snowballs” made of ice and dust, but they are dark because the ice sublimates away, leaving some of the dust behind on the surface. The Rosetta spacecraft has provided a close-up view of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as it passes through its closest point to the Sun (see the Perspective by Dello Russo). Filacchione et al. detected the spectral signature of solid CO2 (dry ice) in small patches on the surface of the nucleus as they emerged from local winter. By modeling how the CO2 sublimates, they constrain the composition of comets and how ices generate the gaseous coma and tail. Fornasier et al. studied images of the comet and discovered bright patches on the surface where ice was exposed, which disappeared as the ice sublimated. They also saw frost emerging from receding shadows. The surface of the comet was noticeably less red just after local dawn, indicating that icy material is removed by sunlight during the local day.

Science, this issue p. 1563, p. 1566; see also p. 1536


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the most abundant species in cometary nuclei, but because of its high volatility, CO2 ice is generally only found beneath the surface. We report the infrared spectroscopic identification of a CO2 ice–rich surface area located in the Anhur region of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Spectral modeling shows that about 0.1% of the 80- by 60-meter area is CO2 ice. This exposed ice was observed a short time after the comet exited local winter; following the increased illumination, the CO2 ice completely disappeared over about 3 weeks. We estimate the mass of the sublimated CO2 ice and the depth of the eroded surface layer. We interpret the presence of CO2 ice as the result of the extreme seasonal changes induced by the rotation and orbit of the comet.

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