Comet 67P activity approaching perihelion

I love this beautiful animation of Comet 67P/C-G as it approached perihelion (closest approach to the Sun – 186 million km distance). Perihelion occurred on August 13th 2015 when activity on the comet will have reached peak intensity but it will continue to be active for weeks to follow. In the animation below you can see jets and outbursts of activity as the frozen ices and gases are heated up by the Sun and burst from the comet. Thank goodness 67P didn’t get any closer to the Sun otherwise it might have broken into pieces!

Activity from 67P/C-G approaching perihelion
Activity from 67P/C-G approaching perihelion Copyright ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

The Martian movie!!

I couldn’t be much more excited about this movie coming out because it was one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. The Martian is one of those books that you’re reading and suddenly start laughing out loud, which can get you funny looks if you’re reading it in public, but the author Andy Weir has done such a fabulous job with it. However, I tend to prefer the books to the movie re-makes but as this has Matt Damon (and Jessica Chastain!) in then hopefully it’ll be good, and hopefully the humour from the book will survive too.

Pluto – New Horizons mission


Wow! I can’t believe I haven’t had time to write about this yet. We’ve been totally spoilt in the last year or so with images from space haven’t we? However, I have to say that when the very first pixelated Pluto images appeared on the web that I was a little underwhelmed….but I had no idea how good they were due to get (see above). Within weeks the most breathtaking pictures of Pluto and its moons Charon, Hydra and Nix were appearing daily and what beautiful world’s these were turning out to be (OK, so for Hydra and Nix the images are still a little blurry (see below) but I’m not complaining now).


More surprising for most of us was the relatively geologically young surface displayed by Pluto – we weren’t expecting this but we weren’t really sure what to expect of this mysterious little world. We’re not re-writing the science books but we’re just simply writing them now – we knew so little about Pluto before these pictures came in. And they say a picture is worth 1000 words, I think in the case of Pluto that a picture is worth many millions of words. But I’ll leave that to the specialists – I’m sure there’s plenty of papers to come from this mission. In the meantime, check out The Planetary Society blogs by Emily Lakdawalla here, here and here etc, she’s covered things really well (as usual). Plus, it’s not all over, there’s data set to be beamed back to Earth for months to come still.

Or comet? - You decide...
Or comet? – You decide…

It seems at work that people decided to have a little fun with my comet model that I had made for the Royal Society Summer Exhibition of 2014 (see above). Although I never intended the model to accurately represent 67P – because when we made the model we had no idea what it looked like – instead it was meant to be a generic comet (whatever that is?!)). Anyway, turns out my comet looks more like Pluto now. Oh well, it’s all outer Solar System stuff right?!


Rosetta lander results – organics!

I have been extra naughty having not written about Rosetta recently. Time is flying by and the lander results came out in a special issue of the journal Science when I was away at MetSoc in California (July 31st) so I was totally inundated with conference and jetlag. So, what do we have? Well, the little lander may have taken its last gasp of comet air since it re-awoke on the comet surface in June, of which we will have to await results. However, it managed to get us a huge amount of data during its rather short but productive few days directly after landing in November 2014 – and these are the results that have just come out in a new selection of papers. It may seem like a long wait since November but I’m afraid that this is the scientific process in action – it takes time to assess data and present it for peer-review before it can be released. We’ve already learnt a lot about the comet from the initial orbiter results that were published earlier in the year so it wasn’t a huge surprise that the lander has also detected organics on the comet. The important thing about these organics is that they are complex molecules that can represent the key building blocks of life…reigniting the big question of whether comets delivered life to Earth (even if the water on 67P apparently appears to be quite different to the water on Earth). We’ve also learned more about the rise and fall of the temperature of the comet and more detail about the surface and internal properties. This mission is far from over though and there’s plenty more detail to come but what we’re learning is helping us shape our picture of how comets formed and how important they might have been in the history of the Earth.

MetSoc conference and baseball

Naughty me, I haven’t been keeping up to date with my updates here at all well. This might just signal that I’ve been busy with lots of exciting projects, which is true. However, conferences and holiday also got in the way.

Stunning UC Berkeley campus
Stunning UC Berkeley campus

The conference I went to was The Meteoritical Society meeting at the end of July in Berkeley CA. A great location, especially as I had a day free on arrival to explore the surrounding area (and the amazing sports facilities at the University). We also got a day off mid-week to attend a baseball game. I was there with a bunch of mostly clueless Brits from the conference (in the nicest way possible – clueless only in terms of baseball that is – very much not clueless in terms of meteorites) but luckily an American was sat next to me so I had my personal commentator to explain what was going on. And thank goodness, baseball has some important differences to rounders! What I learned here is that the ball is not hit very often but that the whole experience is such a spectacle so its all thoroughly enjoyable anyway – particularly as the game was played at the most gorgeous of locations, the AT&T park in San Francisco. If you get the chance then go! The atmosphere is amazing; a crowd of 46,000 people and it was something like their 138th consecutive sell-out game…it was on a Wednesday afternoon too so I’m not sure how all these people had the day off. Anyway, enough of ball games, the meeting itself was great too.

AT&T park for baseball San Francisco

UC Berkeley is a stunning location for a conference (as you’ll see by the picture above) and with around 400 planetary scientists in attendance, but with only 2 parallel sessions, it made for a more intimate and networking-type meeting than I’m used to at LPSC in Houston. I was chairing the Microsample Analysis session on Friday morning which I also spoke in (and presented a poster for on the Tuesday night). We kicked off with a very interesting talk suggesting that there might not be a continuum of compositions between comets and asteroids. This talk was given by Don Brownlee (of Stardust and IDP fame) and it really made me think about my own samples and the paper I’m currently working on. I actually think I will review my data in light of this. My talk went fairly well – although it’s always hard to tell when you’re speaking because 12 minutes feels like 2 minutes so it’s really hard to assess, but I got some good questions and discussions afterwards. I presented some data on an exciting IDP that I’m working on that has some really strong similarities to very organic rich particles collected as micrometoerites from the ice in Antarctica (and which are thought to be cometary in origin also). I still find it amazing that I get to play with comet dust that’s come all the way from the outer Solar System, and is 4.6 billion years old. It’s well known that we have organic matter in space (just see the Rosetta results, summarised quite nicely in this The Conversation article) but organic matter is often not preserved very well in meteorites because they’ve been through secondary processing in space. Organic matter also doesn’t tend to survive atmospheric entry very well either as it gets heated up and altered there too. So, when we get special comet particles collected from the ice in Antarctica and from the stratospheric dust collections then it makes them very special and I think they are currently a little under-appreciated. I’ll try to change that!