Rosetta’s Comet Has a Shiny Necklace

New pictures show a bright “neck” where the comet’s two pieces join.

Comet 67P etc., as seen from a distance of 3,400 miles on July 20. Note the brighter pixels around the middle. (ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team)

As Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft closes in on the comet called 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (man, is that thing crying out for a nickname), the object’s shape is coming into focus, literally. Pictures taken earlier this month showed that 67P is a “contact binary,” most likely formed when two lumps of space rock or rubble collided and stuck together to form one lump. Carsten Güttler of the Max-Planck-Institute for Solar System Research, where Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera was built, was quoted saying that the comet’s nucleus “looks a bit like a rubber duck, with a body and a head.” His colleagues must have liked the description, because they’ve taken to calling the area between the nucleus’s two lobes the “neck.”

Comet 67P as seen from a distance of about 7,500 miles on July 14. This movie is made from 36 OSIRIS images, taken 20 minutes apart. (ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team)

Closer pictures taken last weekend show that the neck appears brighter, and may be made of a different material or have a different topography than the rest of the nucleus. Scientists have seen this kind of smooth-in-the-middle appearance before, notably in a comet called Hartley 2 that was visited by the EPOXI spacecraft in 2010.

We’ll soon solve the mystery: Rosetta is due to rendezvous with 67P on August 6.


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