Rosetta Spacecraft Records Comet Surface Collapse

rosetta spacecraft cometUniversity of Maryland scientists believe they see sinkholes on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The Rosetta spacecraft began orbitting the comet in August 2014. It sent back images of the surface of almost perfectly round circular pits.

The pits are large, ranging from tens to several hundred meters in diameter. The pits are believed to be sinkholes that form similar to the way sinkholes occur on Earth.

We propose that they are sinkholes, formed by a surface collapse…” said Dennis Bodewits, University of Maryland scientist. “These strange, circular pits are just as deep as they are wide. Rosetta can peer right into them

Initially explosive events were thought responsible for creating the pits. On its approach Rosetta observed such behavior. After running the math to calculate the ejected debris scientists realized there was not enough to explain the larger pits.

Images used in University of Maryland researchers analysis come from Rosetta spacecraft’s Optical, Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) camera. The team noted two pit types. The first were shallow and resembled pits recorded on other comets. The larger, deeper pits have steep sides. Jets of gas and dust stream for the sides of the deep pits, behavior absent in the shallow pits.

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The present theory poses the larger pits form when a heat source beneath the comet’s surface sublimates ices. Sublimation is direct transition from solid to gas; like throwing water droplets on a hot stovetop but with house-size blocks of ice.

Eventually the resulting void created by the gas collapses leaving behind a deep circular pit.

The Rosetta spacecraft mission is operated by the European Space Agency. NASA is backing the University of Maryland in their participation in the program. The vessel launched on March 2. 2004 and cost approximately 1 billion Euros.

Images from European Space Agency.