Postcard From the Middle of Nowhere

A snapshot of Rosetta and comet 67P/C-G, taken by Philae at a range of 16 km.

Rosetta is a spacecraft built and launched by the European Space Agency. Its travel partner is a robotic lander named Philae. Their job is to study a comet named 67P/Churyumav-Gearsimenko, or 67P/C-G for short.

The Rosetta mission launched in March, 2004. A little over a month ago, Rosetta and Philae quietly dropped into orbit around the massive comet.

European Space AgencyOn November 12, in little under a month, Philae will attempt to land on the comet.

Go, go human species! Philae, do the job; we’re all behind you.

Meanwhile, a holiday snap?

What you’re looking at in the picture above is none other than 67P/C-G; Philae took the snapshot, which includes part of the Rosetta structure, from a range of under ten miles

Elizabeth Howell, writing for Universe Today explains:

So this spacecraft — taking this picture — is going to land on the surface of THAT comet. Doesn’t this give you a pit in your stomach? This is a selfie taken from the Philae spacecraft that, riding piggyback, captured the side of the Rosetta spacecraft orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The image is so close-up — just 9.9 miles (16 kilometers) from 67P’s surface — that mission planners can even spot Landing Site J on the comet’s smaller lobe.

Additionally, Howell notes, we will hear tomorrow whether or not Site J is cleared for landing; the next data set will be gathered at a range of six miles away from 67p/C-G.

The article comes with a fun, attention grabbing headline, “Creepy Comet Looms In The Background Of Newest Philae Spacecraft Selfie”, but might well overstate the case. After all, when you two hundred ninety eight million miles from home, and all of ten miles away from the only thing in the Universe you can reach, yes, that thing might seem creepy. It’s four and a half miles long. Four miles wide. And it is two hundred ninety eight million miles out in the middle of nowhere and running away from you, yeah, that can be a heart-fluttering moment.

And yet our intrepid explorers push on. Good luck, Philae. And thank you, Rosetta. We know you’re not coming home, but we are so amazed.

And good show, ESA. As we creep toward the climax, we can only wait in thankful awe at the spectacle you’ve given us.

Location of Rosetta mission and comet 67P, 15 October SCET.


European Space Agency. “Rosetta”. (n.d.)

Howell, Elizabeth. “Creepy Comet Looms In The Background Of Newest Philae Spacecraft Selfie”. Universe Today. 14 October 2014.

“Comet 67P (Churyumov-Gerasimenko) and The Rosetta Spacecraft”. Live Comet Data. 14 October 2014.

(Hat tip and many thanks to S.L.)

Herschel: Water at Ceres

What’s that? You never met Herschel?

Via ESA:

ESA’s Herschel space observatory has discovered water vapour around Ceres, the first unambiguous detection of water vapour around an object in the asteroid belt.

Water!With a diameter of 950 km, Ceres is the largest object in the asteroid belt, which lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. But unlike most asteroids, Ceres is almost spherical and belongs to the category of ‘dwarf planets’, which also includes Pluto ….

…. [U]sing the HIFI instrument on Herschel to study Ceres, scientists have collected data that point to water vapour being emitted from the icy world’s surface.

“This is the first time that water has been detected in the asteroid belt, and provides proof that Ceres has an icy surface and an atmosphere,” says Michael Küppers of ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre in Spain, lead author of the paper published in Nature.

Although Herschel was not able to make a resolved image of Ceres, the astronomers were able to derive the distribution of water sources on the surface by observing variations in the water signal during the dwarf planet’s 9-hour rotation period. Almost all of the water vapour was seen to be coming from just two spots on the surface.

“We estimate that approximately 6 kg of water vapour is being produced per second, requiring only a tiny fraction of Ceres to be covered by water ice, which links nicely to the two localised surface features we have observed,” says Laurence O’Rourke, Principal Investigator for the Herschel asteroid and comet observation programme called MACH-11, and second author on the Nature paper.

And, really, what can you say? Good show, Herschel. Congratulations, ESA. And thank you. That is really, really cool.

Herschel is named for the guy who discovered Uranus; William Herschel also identified infrared radiation over two hundred years ago. This latest announcement is one of the satellite’s last dramatic gifts; Herschel ran its course, with final commands sent in June, 2013.

It was certainly a good run. And there are probably myriad little gifts remaining to be discovered in the data.

Talk about a show. Water at Ceres. Makes as much sense as anything else, to be certain, but it is also good to know.

Mars Express Seeks Evidence of Watery History on Mars

Mars Express view of Amenthes PlanumNASA is, obviously, not the only space agency in the world. Nor are they the only agency doing really cool work at Mars. The European Space Agency is currently operating the Mars Express, in orbit around the Red Planet, and the produce of that mission is absolutely astounding.

The latest update from the Mars Express team focuses on Amenthes Planum:

ESA’s Mars Express took a high-resolution stereo image on 13 January of the southeast corner of the Amenthes Planum region on Mars, near to Palos crater and the mouth of a well-known sinuous valley, Tinto Vallis.

At the bottom-centre of the full-colour image … is a nearby shorter and wider valley, which is fed by a number of tributaries before it joins the mouth of Tinto Vallis as both empty into Palos crater, just off the bottom of the image.

The 190 km-long Tinto Vallis is seen in the context image and is named after the famous Rio Tinto river in the Andalucía region of Spain. It is believed to have formed around 3.7 billion years ago, during the early history of Mars.

The network of shorter valleys shown in the first perspective image is thought to have formed through volcanic activity melting subsurface ice and liberating water to the martian surface via seeps and springs.

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