67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, named after its founders by the same names, is rapidly approaching its closest point in orbit to the Sun. At almost 38 km/s to be precise.
Last November, the Rosetta spacecraft’s lander, Philae, became the man-made object to perform a soft landing on a comet.
And what a landing it was! Philae was unsuccessful at anchoring itself to the surface of the comet with its landing harpoons and bounced twice before coming to a halt in a dark zone. This was a problem as the lander couldn’t charge its batteries as well as planned using solar panels, and went into hibernation 3 days after touchdown.
Although Philae made contact at a very low speed, the low gravity on the comet (around one ten-thousandth that of Earth), meant that a small bounce was disastrous.
One proposed theory for the greater than expected ‘bounce factor’ is that the surface of 67P was elastic, with a hard crust under a metre thick overlying an elastic material (S. Ernst pers. comms.). This made me think of the recent announcement that the mysterious ‘craters’ on the surface are created when porous rocky material which has lost its water-ice due to outgassing. Eventually this porous rock can no longer hold its own weight, even in the low gravity of the comet (suggesting high porosity indeed… and a very high current or previous water content for the comet overall!), and it collapses, creating a sinkhole-like feature.
Perhaps the proposed ‘spongy material’ causing Philae to bounce is the same porous rock that is causing these sinkholes?
If so, is the whole surface of the comet poised on the brink of collapse with high porosity? Or did Philae get unlucky and land on a soon to be sinkhole?
These are the questions that excite me about space science. Part of my PhD will involve developing new and novel ways to test various models for the structure of asteroids and comets. Currently I’m looking at seismics and ground penetrating radar, but endless possibilities abound!
Until next time.
Edit: This article suggesting that 67P could be home to microbial life refers to an organic rich crust which is being constantly replenished. The presence of this crust and the replenishment of water (by outgassing from the deeper ice?) would support the above hypothesis!
Second edit: The Skeptics Guide to the Universe has stated that the original scientific research the above article was based on doesn’t actually make any claim to the existence of life on the comet. It just goes to show that one should always read the original science before commenting, as science journalism does get it wrong from time to time!