Comet 67P has made its closest approach to the sun in its 6.5-year long orbit. The European Space Agency (ESA)’s spacecraft Rosetta is still orbiting the icy celestial body. Rosetta is expected to collect massive data, which may offer insights into the formation of comets. The comet reached the closest point to the sun at 03:03 AM BST on Thursday. This phenomenon is called “Perihelion.”
Fireworks can already be seen on Comet 67P
Even at its closest approach, the Comet 67P was 116 million miles (186 million kilometers) away from the sun. By comparison, the distance between Earth and sun is only about 93 million miles. Because the comet is an icy structure, the ESA scientists expect its proximity with the sun to trigger major changes in the comet’s structure.
Andrea Accomazzo, Rosetta operations manager, said astronomers were expecting more activity as the sun warms Comet 67P more and more. The icy world has already released dust and gas, including an extremely bright jet seen on July 29th. The European Space Agency released images of this outburst earlier this week, claiming that it was the brightest jet observed by Rosetta’s cameras.
Mostly, the jets are faint compared to the nucleus. But this one was even brighter than the nucleus. The sun’s heat turns volatile subsurface materials such as frozen carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and water into gases that are poured out into space. This particular jet was brighter, but lasted only about half an hour.
Rosetta over 200 miles away from Comet 67P
The ESA engineers have been maneuvering Rosetta probe to help it keep collecting data despite the increasingly inhospitable environment. At one point, Rosetta was just 20 miles from the surface of the comet. But researchers have now moved it back to roughly 210 miles away. Rosetta can still collect data from that distance.
The gas explosions result into the formation of sinkholes. Astronomers expect that these sinkholes will provide details about the interior of the Comet 67P. Engineers are still working to re-establish contact with the Philae lander, which sent the last signal in early July. Though the lander is in shadow, it receives at least three hours of sunlight a day, enough to charge its batteries. Rosetta can’t talk to Philae because it is more than 200 miles away from the comet. It will seek to revive contact with the lander when it moves closer.