Baked by the sun, Rosetta snaps dramatic comet outburst

Story highlights

  • Comet 67P and its orbiting Rosetta probe reach perihelion -- the closest approach to the sun
  • Scientists are watching for spectacular moments as the sun's heat causes gas and dust to be ejected
  • The mission has already notched up some notable firsts and discovered 16 organic compounds on the comet

London (CNN)Comet 67P is getting hot and bothered. Dramatic pictures from outbursts on the increasingly active comet are being returned by the chasing probe Rosetta as it hurtles round the sun.

Thursday marks perihelion -- the point where the comes closest to our star during it's 6.5-year orbit around the solar system.
Rosetta scientists report on the mission website that this a landmark moment because the intensity of sunlight increases and parts of the comet that may have been in darkness for years are exposed to the sunlight.
    The Rosetta blog explains that the energy warms the comet's ices, turning them into gas which pours into space and drags dust with it.
    This material forms a comet's distinctive tail that can stretch for hundreds of thousands of miles into space.
    The European Space Agency (ESA), which is leading a consortium that includes NASA to find out more about a comet's composition and how it interacts with the sun, says comet activity is expected to peak in the weeks after perihelion but sudden outbursts can happen at any time -- as the probe's picture from the end of July shows.
    Commenting on the mission website Carsten Guttler, from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, said: "Usually, the jets are quite faint compared to the nucleus and we need to stretch the contrast of the images to make them visible - but this one is brighter than the nucleus."
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    It took 10 years to maneuver Rosetta around the solar system so it could match its speed and trajectory on its orbit.
    Scientists are watching for more spectacular moments in the days ahead.
    The probe's Twitter feed @ESA_Rosetta announced Wednesday: "Perihelion may just be a moment, but the #Perihelionparty -- #67P's high activity -- will last for weeks."
    The mission has already notched up a series of notable records. It is the first time a probe has been put in orbit around the comet and to track it on its orbit and the first to make a landing.
    The lander Philae discovered the comet contained 16 organic compounds -- lending weight to a theory that the building blocks of life could have been brought to Earth by comets.
    Excitement is clearly building among the team as they watch the comet's reaction during the hottest part of the trip when it will be 186 million kilometers (about 115 million miles from the sun). The distance between the Earth and the sun varies but we are currently about is 152 million kilometers (or about 94.5 million miles) away from our star.
    Mission controllers have organized a Google hangout for 13:00GMT/09:00EST on Thursday when the comet is at perihelion.
    Contact with Philae was lost in July after briefly re-establishing a link with the orbiter but at the end of the month lander system engineer Laurence O'Rourke told CNN that they hadn't given up on receiving a signal.
    "There's no way we can say the lander is dead," he said.
    After perihelion the comet will begin its outward journey away from the sun to the outer reaches of the solar system. Rosetta will stay in orbit for a while though ESA says the mission has been extended to September next year when it says controllers will most likely attempt to park the orbiter on the comet's surface.