Rosetta’s comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko sheds its dusty mantle to reveal its icy nature

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Science  23 Dec 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6319, pp. 1566-1570
DOI: 10.1126/science.aag2671

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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


The Rosetta spacecraft has investigated comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from large heliocentric distances to its perihelion passage and beyond. We trace the seasonal and diurnal evolution of the colors of the 67P nucleus, finding changes driven by sublimation and recondensation of water ice. The whole nucleus became relatively bluer near perihelion, as increasing activity removed the surface dust, implying that water ice is widespread underneath the surface. We identified large (1500 square meters) ice-rich patches appearing and then vanishing in about 10 days, indicating small-scale heterogeneities on the nucleus. Thin frosts sublimating in a few minutes are observed close to receding shadows, and rapid variations in color are seen on extended areas close to the terminator. These cyclic processes are widespread and lead to continuously, slightly varying surface properties.

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