As Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko gets closer to the sun, researchers hope that the European Space Agency’s robotic explorer Philae raiding it for more than nine months would be able to grab crucial data on the origins of our solar system.
Comet 67P is expected to reach the closest point to the Sun, or the perihelion, this week. When that happens, scientists hope that the high temperatures may melt even more of the comet’s icy crust which will release gases and particles that may help them get new insights into our solar system’s early days.
The data on the precious material expected to be delivered by Chury will be gathered on a first phase by Philae’s mothership – Rosetta – which orbited at the comet at close range.
“We want to look at the more pristine material that might come out,”
said Mark McCaughrean, ESA’s Senior Scientific Advisor for its robotic missions.
The comet is expected to reach perihelion Thursday at 9:00 a.m. CDT before engaging in a new orbit for nearly 6.5 years. On Thursday, the cosmic bullet will be located at 116-million-mile distance from the sun, researchers reported.
But the comet has been blasting away new material from its interior for months now. Its dust tail started to grow in mid-April when the solar heat was intense enough to melt its frozen crust.
McCaughrean added that ESA scientists have a unique opportunity of detecting rare molecules this week. Philae lander is the only man-made craft to reach the surface of a moving comet to date.
Scientists are especially interested in a crack on the comet’s narrower region which hosts a 1,640-foot-deep crevice. The team expects that the duck-shaped comet would eventually crack in two and allow Rosetta mission team have a look at its insides.
Scientists said that that would be the Holy Grail of exploring comet exploration, but the chances are very slim for it to happen. On the other hand, Rosetta mission’s investigators may be able to look at new data within weeks because Philae’s whereabouts are unknown. The team lost contact again with the lander on July 9.
Currently, 67P hurtles towards the sun at 21.2 miles per second. So, Rosetta had to get farther from the comet because of the dust of gas and particles that could choke its navigation systems. The craft now orbits 67P from about a 124-mile distance. Yet, scientists do not want to move it too far because they may lose sight on precious materials. McCaughrean cautioned, however, that the team may lose the orbiter. Plus, they need Philae to get back on track because its instruments are much more accurate than Rosetta’s.
Image Source: National Geographic