It appears that European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft has captured some astonishing images of a mysterious 82-foot-tall pyramid-shaped boulder on the surface of its target comet – Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Rosetta first photographed it upon arriving in orbit around Comet 67P in early August.
Spacecraft’s team members have named the boulder Cheops, after the largest pyramid in Egypt’s famous Giza complex. The rock is much smaller than its namesake, however, which rises 456 feet into the Egyptian sky.
Over the past few weeks, the probe has taken close-up pictures and several wide-angle views that highlight the rock and its surrounding boulder field.
“The surface of Cheops seems to be very craggy and irregular,” said Holger Sierks, the principal investigator for Rosetta’s Optical, Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS), in a statement.
“Especially intriguing are small patches on the boulder’s surface displaying the same brightness and texture as the underground,” added Sierks, a comet researcher with the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany. “It looks almost as if loose dust covering the surface of the comet has settled in the boulder’s cracks. But, of course, it is much too early to be sure.”
Many properties of Cheops’ boulder field are unknown. Scientists are examining what the rocks are made of, how dense they are and how they might have been created. It’s possible that as the comet grows more active, the boulders will move around or become more visible to Rosetta’s camera, team members said.
While scientists don’t know what that specifically means, they did say that it could mean almost anything. So far, the closest photos were taken at 9.3 miles altitude, which is by far the closest they have gotten thus far in studying the comet.
Rosetta launched in 2004, and they will be working over the next year to continue studying 67P until the icy object gets too far away, and too close to the sun.
The Rosetta Mission finally has a landing spot chosen on a comet along with a backup spot after a ten-year trip in outer space. If the European spacecraft is able to complete the landing with its Philae lander this will be the first time in history mankind has been able to safely land an object on a comet. Scientists are hopeful that they will be able to learn more about comets via the landing.