Rosetta Reveals Surprises in Comet 67P's Coma

Rosetta's continued close study of Comet 67P/ChuryumovGerasimenko has revealed an unexpected process at work, causing the rapid breakup of water and carbon dioxide molecules spewing from the comet's surface.

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ESA's Rosetta mission arrived at the comet in August last year. Since then, it has been orbiting or flying past the comet at distances from as far as several hundred kilometres down to as little as 8 km. While doing so, it has been collecting data on every aspect of the comet's environment with its suite of 11 science instruments.

One instrument, the Alice spectrograph provided by NASA, has been examining the chemical composition of the comet's atmosphere, or coma, at far-ultraviolet wavelengths.

At these wavelengths, Alice allows scientists to detect some of the most abundant elements in the Universe such as hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. The spectrograph splits the comet's light into its various colours its spectrum from which scientists can identify the chemical composition of the coma gases.

In a paper accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, scientists report the detections made by Alice from Rosetta's first four months at the comet, when the spacecraft was between 10 km and 80 km from the centre of the comet nucleus.

For this study, the team focused on the nature of 'plumes' of water and carbon dioxide gas erupting from the comet's surface, triggered by the warmth of the Sun. To do so, they looked at the emission from hydrogen and oxygen atoms resulting from broken water molecules, and similarly carbon atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, close to the comet nucleus.

They discovered that the molecules seem to be broken up in a two-step process.

First, an ultraviolet photon from the Sun hits a water molecule in the comet's coma and ionises it, knocking out an energetic electron. This electron then hits another water molecule in the coma, breaking it apart into two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, and energising them in the process. These atoms then emit ultraviolet light that is detected at characteristic wavelengths by Alice.

Similarly, it is the impact of an electron with a carbon dioxide molecule that results in its break-up into atoms and the observed carbon emissions.

"Analysis of the relative intensities of observed atomic emissions allows us to determine that we are directly observing the 'parent' molecules that are being broken up by electrons in the immediate vicinity, about 1 km, of the comet's nucleus where they are being produced," says Paul Feldman, professor of physics and astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and lead author of the paper discussing the results.

By comparison, from Earth or from Earth-orbiting space observatories such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the atomic constituents of comets can only be seen after their parent molecules, such as water and carbon dioxide, have been broken up by sunlight, hundreds to thousands of kilometres away from the nucleus of the comet.

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