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Comet chasing

  • After a journey of 6.4 billion kilometres, the European Space Agency’s Philae probe landed on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in November. The space-based Rosetta mission aims to reveal what comets are made of - and shed light on the origins of our solar system and the beginnings of life on earth. It is being supported by ground-based observations which in August this year imaged the comet from earth using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. Image: Colin Snodgrass/ESO/ESA
  • One of the main goals of Rosetta is to reveal if life on earth was kick-started by comet collisions that transported water and other organic molecules. Researchers will measure exactly what comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is made of, so any ‘water’ molecules can be compared with the earth’s oceans to see whether they match. Image: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
  • The EU-funded ISANDAL project, which has been supporting the Rosetta mission, studied comets in our solar system and in systems around other stars. Using ground observations and cameras on the Rosetta spacecraft, researchers uncovered a comet-like object whose tail turned out to be the debris trail left by two asteroids colliding. Image: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
  • ISANDAL researcher Dr Colin Snodgrass was part of a team of observers who discovered the first ring system around an asteroid, known as Chariklo. Chariklo is a centaur, an object which has characteristics of both asteroids and Kuiper belt objects. The disc-shaped Kuiper belt is an area of the solar system beyond the planet Neptune, billions of kilometres from the sun, and comprised of mostly frozen objects left over from the formation of the planets. Artist’s impression: ESO/L. Calçada/M. Kornmesser/Nick Ri
  • The EU-funded DEBRIS project is looking at comets and asteroid belts around stars outside our solar system. The discovery of an extrasolar asteroid belt around the star 61 Virginis suggests that the processes leading to the formation of a super-earth planetary system often create a massive belt of comets comparable to the solar system’s Kuiper belt. Image: ESA/AOES Medialab
  • DEBRIS researchers detected a cloud of carbon monoxide gas around the young star Beta Pictoris caused by a swarm of almost constantly colliding comets. The discovery suggests the extrasolar comets are made from carbon monoxide ice and are frozen debris trapped by the gravity of an unseen exoplanet. Artist’s impression: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/ F. Reddy

As the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission follows comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on its journey around the sun, Horizon takes a look at comets across the solar system and beyond.