Incredible GIF shows turbulent Comet 67P snowstorm seen by Rosetta

24 Apr 2018

Rosetta mission selfie at 16km. Image: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

ESA’s Rosetta mission might be long over, but its last few images have been pieced together to make something truly special.

In 2014, the world celebrated the news that the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft had travelled millions of kilometres and successfully entered an orbit around Comet 67P, a giant chunk of ancient space debris.

Soon after, it began snapping photographs of the comet’s surface, which until that point had been a mystery to science. A wealth of scientific information was revealed that questioned our theories on the formation of oceans, as well as the very nature of the development of life.

Now, those final few moments have been encapsulated in an incredible GIF created by Twitter user landru79 based on freely available image data released by ESA.

While consisting of just a few images stacked together to create a clip lasting only a second or two, the GIF reveals something unlike any other image of Comet 67P we have seen before, more closely resembling a snowy canyon in the Arctic than images from a chunk of space debris.

Garnering a massive reaction on Twitter, its creator said that the next step is to create a colourised GIF of the scenes that not only includes a massive accumulation of dust swirling around, but also glimpses of cosmic rays.

If you look closely, some of what looks like vertically falling snow is in fact the millions of stars caught by Rosetta’s cameras as it orbited the comet as close as 10km from its surface.

Mark McCaughrean, a senior adviser for space and exploration at ESA, chimed in on the footage to say that the background stars seen here are from Canis Major and that the cluster near the limb of the comet is designated NGC 2362, with another one spotted on the right-hand side dubbed NGC 2354.

Mysterious eruptions

Some of the last scientific findings to come from the Rosetta mission were announced in October 2017 when ESA revealed that a fountain of dust was spotted erupting from the comet’s surface.

Photographed just a few months before the end of the mission, the event lasted roughly an hour, producing 18kg of dust.

Initially, scientists thought that the plume might have been surface ice evaporating in the sunlight. However, Rosetta’s measurements showed there had to be something more energetic going on to fling that amount of dust into space.

Researchers now think that it may have been pressurised gas bubbles rising through underground cavities and bursting free via ancient vents, or stores of ice reacting violently when exposed to sunlight.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic