Rosetta reveals the water-ice cycle of Comet 67P

The illustration shows Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (left, top) based on four images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera and (left, bottom) images of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko taken with Rosetta’s Visible, InfraRed and Thermal Imaging Spectrometer, VIRTIS (left), and maps of water ice abundance (middle) and surface temperature (right).

The images were taken of a region on the comet’s “neck”, one of the most active spots on the nucleus at the time.

By comparing these images and maps, the scientists have found that water ice is present on colder patches, while it is less abundant or absent on warmer patches. In addition, water ice was only detected on a patch of the surface when it was cast in shadow. This indicates a cyclical behaviour of water ice during each comet rotation.

The graphic on the right shows the daily water ice cycle.

During the local day, water ice on and a few centimetres below the surface sublimates and escapes; during the local night, the surface rapidly cools while the underlying layers are still warm, so subsurface water ice continues sublimating and finding its way to the surface, where it freezes again.

On the next comet day, sublimation starts again, beginning from water ice in the newly formed surface layer.

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

Read science facts, not fiction...

There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.