The nucleus of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Rosetta and its lander Philae have provided for the first time extremely detailed information about the nucleus of a comet, although there is still much to learn.

The superb photographs taken at different distances by the OSIRIS camera of the orbiter and the ROLIS and CIVA-P cameras of the lander revealed a double nucleus that may be the result of a merger between two nuclei soon after their formation. The surface of this nucleus is very chaotic, with cliffs, fractures as well as plains.

Le noyau de la Comète 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko - 1

Le noyau de la comète 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko observé le 3 août 2014 à une distance de 285 km. La plus grande dimension est d’environ 4 km.


This surface is very dark; it reflects only 6 percent of the light it receives. It is made of a black granular material, loose like sand in some places and hard in others. Bare ice appears only in rare wells from which the jets of gas and dust emerge, but ice could also be a relatively minor component of the dark material. The surface of the comet nucleus is very heat-insulating; the surface temperature fluctuates between 120° kelvin (-153° Celsius) and 180° K  depending on illumination by the Sun, but these fluctuations are attenuated quickly when one penetrates inside, to stabilize at about 150 K at large depths.

The CONCERT instrument provided unique data on the inside of the nucleus, at least in the part of the head that was the only place that could be explored. They indicate a material made of a mixture of ice and dust. The nature of dust is similar to that of the carbonaceous chondrites (a class of very primitive meteorites). The material is very porous because 80 percent of the volume is empty, which explains the low density of the comet: 533 kg/m3, while the density of the ice is about 900 kg/m3 and that of the dust some five times greater. The refractive index of the comet material decreases with depth, which implies either that the dust is less abundant, or that the medium is increasingly porous at greater depths.

All this confirms and greatly improves the model published in 1950 by Fred Whipple.