The Rosetta spacecraft chased down the nearly three-mile-long Churyumov–Gerasimenko comet in 2014. It then spent almost two years capturing detailed images of the comet’s dust-ridden surface.
The images are publicly available, which allowed Twitter user landru79 to compile a brilliant animation of images shot over a 25-minute period. Taken together, it gives us an idea of what it’s like on that rapidly spinning, oddly-shaped ball of dust and ice.
“This is the well familiar environment in which Rosetta observed for nearly two years — lots of dust flying around!” Matt Taylor, a European Space Agency (ESA) project scientist for the Rosetta mission, said over email.
Most of what’s shooting around is ancient dust, said Taylor, though some stars can be seen in the background, too. Mark McCaughrean, Senior Advisor for Science and Exploration at the ESA, identified the stars, some of which belong to the well-known constellation Canis Major.
A major reason ESA scientists sent this mission to the spinning comet — originally conceived in the 1970s and approved in 1993 — was “to analyze the nature of the dust emitted by the comet,” said Taylor.
The orbiter’s OSIRIS camera captured a variety of debris as it flew off the comet, ranging from dusty grains to chunks 2 meters (6.5 feet) in size.
The Rosetta mission, which also involved sending a lander to the comet’s surface, improved scientists’ understanding of how these ancient comets were born.
Comets are leftover icy grains formed during our solar system’s creation some 4.6 billion years — as opposed to oddly-shaped balls of accumulated rubble created during later collisions.
The dust-ridden surface, then, is a primordial relic of our solar system’s beginning.
“Comets really are the treasure-troves of the solar system,” Taylor previously said.