Tag Archives: Rosetta

The rotation of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Hi there! Today, we go back to the famous comet 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko. As you may know, this comet was the target of the European space mission Rosetta. In particular, it was the first comet to be landed by a spacecraft, in November 2014. Rosetta gave us invaluable information on 67P, which could be extrapolated to many comets, with caution of course. Today we discuss Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko rotation changes derived from sublimation induced torques, by T. Kramer, M. Läuter, S. Hviid, L. Jorda, H.U. Keller and E. Kührt.
It addresses the following issue: when you try to assess the forces affecting the orbit and the rotation of the comet, you have troubles. Among these forces are the gravitational perturbations of the Sun and the planets, which are very well known, but also torques and forces due to non-gravitational effects. When the comet approaches the Sun, its ice sublimates, and the resulting outgassing deviates the comet and affects its rotation. This last effect is only poorly constrained, and this is why in situ observations, as made by Rosetta, are essential to understand them. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The discovery of 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko

This comet has been discovered by chance in September 1969 at Alma Ata Observatory, now in Kazakhstan, then in USSR. Svetlana Ivanova Gerasimenko took images of a field containing the comet 32P/Comas Solá, and Klim Ivanovich Churyumov detected there a new object close to the edge of an image. This object appeared on several images, which permitted to characterize its motion. That object was itself a comet, a periodic one (“P”), and more precisely the 67th to be discovered. So was it named 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko. You can find below some of its characteristics.

Discovery 1969
Semimajor axis 3.463 AU
Perihelion 1.243 AU
Aphelion 5.68 AU
Eccentricity 0.64
Inclination 7.04°
Orbital period 6.44 yr
Spin period 12 h 24 min
Diameter 4 km
Density 0.53 g/cm3

As you can see, its orbit is pretty elongated, and has a period of almost 6.5 years. This means that every 6.5 years, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko approaches the Sun, at its perihelion, and at that time gets heated. This results in the sublimation of some of its material, which deviates it and alters its spin. The last passage at the perihelion occurred in August 2015, while the next one will be in November 2021. Rosetta orbited the comet from 2014 to 2016, which encompassed the perihelion passage, allowing to observe and measure the peak and evolution of its cometary activity.

A rugged terrain

We will see later that modeling the rotation of a planetary object requires to know its shape. Fortunately for us, we know this shape very accurately, thanks to Rosetta. Unfortunately for the authors, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is far from a ball.

This is actually a bilobal object, i.e. roughly like a bone, of some 4 km in its larger dimension. Moreover, its terrain is very rugged. Rosetta actually observed, over only two years, alterations in the terrain, e.g. a landslide associated with an outburst. This makes the behavior of the comet all the more difficult to constrain… For instance, if you want to consider an outburst, from which region will it emerge?

Rugged terrain on 67P © ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Rugged terrain on 67P © ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

The data brought by Rosetta

We know the shape and rotation state of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko thanks to Rosetta/OSIRIS images. OSIRIS, for Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System, is an imager composed of 2 cameras, a WAC and a NAC (Wide-Angle and Narrow-Angle Camera, respectively). From images brought by OSIRIS, it was possible to build a set of approximately 25,000 control points. Multiple observations of these control points, at different dates, permitted to understand that

  • the comet spun around a single axis, which orientation has been determined,
  • its rotation period was 12 hours and something (on purpose, I do not detail this something here),
  • the rotation state varies with time. Rosetta observed a reorientation of the spin axis of 0.5°, and a shortening of the rotation period by 21 minutes (this is why I did not detail the something).

Moreover, these data permitted to elaborate a shape model of the comet, made of 3,996 triangular surface elements. From this shape model, you can determine what is called the tensor of inertia of the comet, i.e. its mass distribution, in assuming its composition to be homogeneous (you always have to make hypotheses).

Now, let us see how the rotation is affected.

The torques affecting the comet

In the study, the comet is assumed to be rigid, i.e. its shape is constant. You have no elasticity, this is probably a good approximation over such a limited time span. The equations of the rigid rotation tell you that the angular momentum of the comet (the angular momentum is the tensor of inertia, which is multiplied by the rotation) is affected by two kinds of torques:

  • the gravitational torque of the surrounding bodies, which is almost entirely due to the mass of the Sun,
  • non-gravitational torques, due to ice sublimation and heating by the Sun.

You put all this into an equation, you solve it numerically, and you can predict it, and understand the rotation measurements… Easy, isn’t it? Well, not that easy, since you have only few constraints on the ice sublimation.

Modeling its rotation

BUT you have measurements of the rotation. So, what you can do is fit the parameters you don’t know, to the observed rotation. And more particularly to the changes in the rotational state.

More precisely, the authors modeled the torque due to the sublimation of water ice with a Fourier representation, i.e. as a sum of periodic quantities. These contributions are assumed to have a period, which is due to the rotation of the comet, and they are treated separately. The authors managed to match the Fourier amplitudes with the observed torque. And now let us go to the conclusions.

What it tells us on the activity

Fitting the Fourier coefficients to the observed rotation finally tell us that:

  • you can constrain the active fraction of the surface, with respect to the different areas (the authors considered 38 different zones on the surface),
  • the sublimation increases much faster than linearly with respect to insolation. In other words, when you are twice closer to the Sun, the quantity of sublimated water ice is much more than twice than before. This was already known from other studies, but the study of the rotation confirms this fact. You should see it as a validation of the method.

So, this paper shows that we can definitely make a link between water production and the changes in rotation rate. Outgassing also produces CO2, but this is not considered, since this production is more uniform than the one of water, and so should not affect the reorientation of the spin axis.

The study and its authors

  • You can find the study here. The complete reference is Kramer T., Läuter M., Hviid S., Jorda L., Keller H.U. & Kührt E., 2019, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko rotation changes derived from sublimation-induced torques, Astronomy and Astrophysics, in press. The authors made it also freely available on arXiv, many thanks to them for sharing! And now, let us see the authors:
  • the website of Tobias Kramer, first author of the study,
  • the webpage of Matthias Läuter,
  • the IAU page of Laurent Jorda,
  • the one of Horst Uwe Keller,
  • and the ResearchGate profile of Ekkehard Kührt.

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

When a comet meets the Solar wind

Hi there! Today, let us talk about the environment of a comet. As you know, a comet is an active body, which emits ionized particles and dust. The Sun itself emits charged particles, which constitute the Solar wind. We discuss today of the interaction between these two emissions. The environment of charged particles around a comet has been measured by the spacecraft Rosetta, and this has motivated modeling these interactions. I present you Solar wind dynamics around a comet: The paradigmatic inverse-square-law model, by M. Saillenfest, B. Tabone, and E. Behar. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The spacecraft Rosetta

Let us first speak about the mission Rosetta. Rosetta was a European mission, which orbited the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko between 2014 and 2016. It was named after the Rosetta Stone, which permitted the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The mission Rosetta was supposed to give us clues on the primordial Solar System, i.e. on our origins, from the study of a comet.

It was launched in March 2004 from Kourou (French Guiana), and then started a 10-years journey, during which it made 3 fly-bys of the Earth and one of Mars. You can say: “why going back to Earth?” The reason is that Rosetta was supposed to orbit 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (spoiler alert: it did it). For this orbital insertion to be possible, it had to arrive slowly enough… but also had to leave Earth fast enough, to get rid off its attraction, and also to shorten the journey. Fly-bys permitted to slow the spacecraft in exchanging energy with the Earth (or Mars).

Rosetta also visited two asteroids: (2867) Šteins, and (21) Lutetia, in September 2008 and July 2010, respectively. It was inserted into orbit around 67P in August 2014, released the lander Philae in November, and the mission ended in September 2016. In particular, Rosetta was present when 67P reached its perihelion in August 2015. At this point, the comet was at its closest distance to the Sun (1.25 astronomical unit, while its mean distance is almost thrice this number), where the cometary activity is maximal.

The asteroids (2867) Šteins (left) and (21) Lutetia (right), seen by Rosetta. © ESA
The asteroids (2867) Šteins (left) and (21) Lutetia (right), seen by Rosetta. © ESA

So, Rosetta consisted of two modules: the orbiter itself, and the lander Philae. The orbiter had 11 instruments on board, and the lander 10. These instruments permitted, inter alia, to map the comet and measure its geometry, to constrain its internal structure and its chemistry, and to characterize its environment.

This environment is strongly affected by the Solar wind, especially in the vicinity of the perihelion, but not only.

The Solar wind

The Solar corona emits a stream of charges particles, which is mainly composed of electrons, protons, and alpha particles (kind of charged helium). This emission is called Solar wind. It is so energetic, that the emitted particles go far beyond the orbit of Pluto, constituting the heliosphere. The heliosphere has the shape of a bubble, and its boundary is called the heliopause. Voyager 1 crossed it in August 2012, at a distance of 121 AU of the Sun. At the heliopause, the pressure of the Solar wind is weak enough, to be balanced by the one of the interstellar medium, i.e. the winds from the surrounding stars. Hence, Voyager 1 is in this interstellar space, but technically still in the Solar System, as under the gravitational attraction of the Sun.

Anyway, our comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is much closer than that, and has to deal with the Solar wind. Let us see how.

The physics of the interaction

Imagine you are on the comet, and you look at the Sun… which should make you blind. From that direction comes a stream of these charged particles (the Solar wind), and you can consider that their trajectories are parallel if far enough from the comet. Of course, the Sun does not emit on parallel trajectories, i.e. the trajectories of all these particles converge to the Sun. But from the comet, the incident particles appear to arrive on parallel trajectories.

While a charged particle approaches the comet, it tends to be deflected. Here, the dominating effect is not the gravitation, but the Lorentz force, i.e. the electromagnetic force. This force is proportional to the electric charge of the particle, and also involves its velocity, and the electric and magnetic fields of the comet.

The authors showed in a previous paper that the trajectories of the charged particles could be conveniently described in assuming that the magnetic field obeys an inverse-square law, i.e. its amplitude decreases with the square of the distance to the comet. If you are twice further from the comet, then the magnetic field is four times weaker.

I do not mean that the magnetic field indeed obeys this law. It is in fact more complex. I just mean that if you model it with such an ideal law, you are accurate enough to study the trajectories of the Solar wind particles. And this is what the authors did.

By the way, the authors suggest that any magnetic field following an inverse-power law could work. Of course, the numbers would have been different, but the global picture of the trajectories would be pretty much the same. It seems, at this time, too challenging to determine which of these models is the most accurate one.

Reducing the problem

The authors used analytical calculations, i.e. maths, which are in fact close to the classical ones, you make to show that the gravitation results in elliptic, parabolic, or hyperbolic, trajectories.

A wonderful tool assisting such studies is the First Integrals. A First Integral is a quantity, which remains constant all along a trajectory. For instance, in a gravitational problem where no energy is dissipated, then the total energy (kinetic + potential energies) is conserved. This is a First Integral. Another First Integral in that problem is the norm of the total angular momentum. And the existence of these two quantities helps to understand the shape of the possible orbits.

The authors showed that this is quite similar here. Even if the equations are slightly different (anyway the inverse-square law is a similarity), they showed that the problems has 2 First Integrals. And from these 2 First Integrals, they showed that knowing only 2 parameters is in fact enough to characterize the trajectories of the Solar wind particles. These two parameters are called rC and rE, they have the physical dimension of a distance, and are functions of all the parameters of the problems. rE characterizes the stream, it is related to its velocity, while rC characterizes a given particle. If you know just these 2 parameters, then you can determine the trajectory.

An empty cavity around the comet

The authors give a detailed description of the trajectories. To make things simple: either the particles orbit the comet, or they just pass by. But anyway, there is an empty space around the comet, i.e. a spherical cavity in which no Solar wind particle enters.

To come: comparison with in situ measurements

The journey of Rosetta around 67P crossed the boundary of this empty cavity. In other words, we have measurements of the density of charged particles at different distances from the comet, and also for different distances from the Sun, since the orbital phase of the mission lasted 2 years, during which 67P orbited the Sun. The authors promise us that a study of the comparison between the model and the in situ measurements, i.e. the observations, is to come. We stay tuned!

Rosetta does not operate anymore, and has landed (or crashed…) on 67P in September 2016. It is still there, and has on-board a kind of modern Rosetta stone. This is a micro-etched pure nickel prototype of the Rosetta disc donated by the Long Now Foundation, as part of its Rosetta Project. The disc was inscribed with 6,500 pages of language translations. This is a kind of time capsule, aiming at preserving part of our culture. Maybe someone will one day find it…

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.