Kepler images Comet 67/P from afar
As the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission spent its last month orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, designed to search for exoplanets, captured distant “big picture” views of the comet.
Taken between Sept. 7 and 20, Kepler’s global, long-distance images will complement the close-ups Rosetta captured during its two years orbiting Comet 67P. Together, images taken from the two very different perspectives will enable scientists to gain a more complete understanding of the comet and its activity.
The comet could not be photographed by ground-based telescopes as it is currently only visible during daylight hours. Kepler, now in its extended K2 mission, took pictures of 67P once every 30 minutes during its nearly two weeks of observation.
Sunlight reflected off the tail of gas and dust released by 67P enabled Kepler to observe both its nucleus and tail. By measuring the light a comet reflects, scientists can determine its activity level.
Once scientists analyze the data Kepler has collected, they will be able to calculate the amount of mass the comet has lost every day as it orbits the interior of the Solar System.
Images captured by Kepler over 29.5 hours from Sept. 17–18 were put together to create an animation depicting its activity. In it, the comet passes through the space telescope’s field of view from top-right to bottom-left. The white dots visible are background stars and other astronomical phenomena.
ESA ended the Rosetta mission on Sept. 30 with a controlled impact of the orbiter on the comet’s surface. As it descended, Rosetta continued to capture and return high-resolution images until the last possible moment.
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.