Predicting comets: a matter of perspective

Contrast stretched NAVCAM image of the nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko to highlight the “jets” of dust emitted from all over the surface. CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

In general, any cometary activity is difficult to predict and many comets are known for sudden changes in brightness, break ups and simple disappearances. Fortunately, the Rosetta target comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasiminko (67P/C-G) is much more amendable to theoretical predictions. The OSIRIS and NAVCAM images show light reflected from a highly structured dust coma within the space probe orbit (ca 20-150 km).

Is is possible to predict the dust coma and tail of comets?

Starting in 2014 we have been working on a dust forecast for 67P/C-G, see the previous blog entries. We had now the chance to check how well our predictions hold by comparing the model outcome to a image sequence from the OSIRIS camera during one rotation period of 67P/C-G on April 12, 2015, published by Vincent et al in A&A 587, A14 (2016) (arxiv version, there Fig. 13).

Comparison of Rosetta observations by Vincent et al A&A 2016 (left panels) with the homogeneous model (right panels). Taken from Kramer&Noack (ApJL 2016) Credit for (a, c): ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Our results appeared in Kramer & Noack, Astrophysical Journal Letters, 823, L11 (preprint, images). We obtain a surprisingly high correlation coefficient (average 80%, max 90%) between theory and observation, if we stick to the following minimal assumption model:

  1. dust is emitted from the entire sunlit nucleus, not only from localized active areas. We refer to this as the “homogeneous activity model”
  2. dust is entering space with a finite velocity (on average) along the surface normal. This implies that close to the surface a rapid acceleration takes place.
  3. photographed “jets” are highly depending on the observing geometry:
    rotateif multiple concave areas align along the line of sight, a high imaged intensity results, but is not necessarily the result of a single main emission source. As an exemplary case, we analysed the brightest points in the Rosetta image taken on April 12, 2015, 12:12 and look at all contributing factors along the line of sight (yellow line) from the camera to the comet. The observed jet is actually resulting from multiple sources and in addition from contributions from all sunlit surface areas.

What are the implications of the theoretical model?

If dust is emitted from all sunlit areas of 67P/C-G, this implies a more homogeneous surface erosion of the illuminated nucleus and leaves less room for compositional heterogeneities. And finally: it makes the dust coma much more predictable, but still allows for additional (but unpredictable) spontaneous, 20-40 min outbreak events. Interestingly, a re-analysis of the comet Halley flyby by Crifo et al (Earth, Moon, and Planets 90 227-238 (2002)) also points to a more homogeneous emission pattern as compared to localized sources.


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