Set faces to stunned, because this absolutely incredible image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, should leave you suitably blown away.
What you’re seeing here is Comet 67P with the Sun almost directly behind it; Rosetta, the comet, and the Sun are almost all in a straight line. The result is an amazing glow of light surrounding the comet’s odd shape.
On the left is the smaller lobe of the comet, the location of Philae’s final resting place, and on the right the larger one. The image was taken with the spacecraft's NAVCAM on March 27, 2016, from a distance of 329 kilometers (204 miles) from the comet’s center, and spans 28.7 kilometers (17.8 miles) across.
Rosetta was able to snap this image because it has recently been sat in a distant orbit of the comet. “In February and March, Rosetta spent several weeks at very close distances from the comet nucleus, which overfilled the field of view of the NAVCAM, providing us with striking views of the surface,” ESA explained in a blog post. “During the current excursion, instead, we can enjoy again a view of the full nucleus and the environment around it.”
Of particular interest are the increased areas of activity, the brightest regions seen shooting away from the comet, as the surface sublimates in the sunlight (that is, its ice turns directly to gas). This creates the larger coma, or atmosphere, that we can just about make out in the image. You can even make out the shadows of the two lobes on the coma, which is seriously impressive.
Close up, the shadows produced below each lobe can be seen in greater detail.
Having been 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the comet on March 30, Rosetta is now moving back below 200 kilometers (125 miles) this week, before lowering itself to just 30 kilometers (19 miles) on April 9.
Sadly, the Rosetta mission is due to come to a close later this year. Following the official retirement of the Philae lander earlier this year, scientists are preparing to end the Rosetta mission in September, with the spacecraft being gently lowered to the surface of the comet. It will be performing science right up until the mission’s end, but once it is on the surface, it will be unable to point its antenna towards Earth and communication will cease.
Until then, we've got several months of science to look forward to, and it’s likely that the data gathered by Rosetta will spur scientific investigation for many years to come.