A Comet is Born

By Tom Yulsman | May 15, 2014 9:37 pm

This animation of images from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft shows comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko moving against the background star field. Image (Source: ESA/Rosetta/MPS)

Actually, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is not at all newborn. In fact, being made of material left over from the origin of the solar system more than 4 billion years ago, it has been around (and around and around, literally…) for a very long time.

But now, as it gets ever closer to the sun, it is becoming animated. And you can see it in the animation of images above from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft — which is headed for a rendezvous with the comet in August. Rosetta will then escort Comet 67P around the sun and in November deploy a lander named Philae to touch down on its surface, which will be a first.

By the end of the sequence of images above, taken between March 24 and May 4, Comet 67P has gotten close enough to the sun (373 million miles away, or four times the distance between Earth and sun!) for the increasing warmth to cause icy material on its surface to turn into gas and escape into space. As this happens, the gas carries with it a mass of expanding dust particles. The result is a dusty veil, called a “coma,” that you can see growing around the comet. Eventually, it will form a classic comet tail.

As it was capturing the images, Rosetta pulled ever closer to 67P, moving from about 3.1 million miles to 1.2 million miles away.  By the end of the sequence, the comet’s coma extends about 800 miles into space. The nucleus itself is only about 2.5 miles across.

Check out this video for a really cool explanation of the Rosetta mission and Philae’s planned landing on it surface.

Why go to all this trouble? It turns out that comets are are made of material left over from when the sun and and planets were forming. So the hope is that Rosetta will provide insights into the origin and evolution of the solar system.

  • David Sussman

    I will start my post at the beginning. The formation of our Solar System. No one is positive when it actually formed but we will say it’s between 5 and 6 Billion years ago. The more advanced we get as a civilization, the more we will be able to understand certain concepts that we weren’t able to conceptualize before. I know that sounds like gobledegook, but the further we move ahead in time, the easier it will be to understand those concepts. The evolution of the mind will happen so slow that we won’t even be able to tell. We will arrive when we get there so just wait.

  • symbolset

    There are other things moving around in that gif.

    • Nicholas Dollak

      Yep. I can’t tell if they’re just mechanical artifacts or passing rocks, but there’s movement all over the place. Look at the prominent star just above the cluster at 10:00 – Planets in orbit? Passing debris?

    • qcubed63

      Probably small asteroids. Possibly space junk or satellites.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar