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Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is ‘singing’ to us


ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Philae on surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Listening to a comet with instruments on Rosetta:

RPC, Rosetta’s Plasma Consortium, consists of five instruments on the Rosetta orbiter that provide a wide variety of complementary information about the plasma environment surrounding Comet 67P/C-G. (Reminder: Plasma is the fourth state of matter, an electrically conductive gas that can carry magnetic fields and electrical currents.)

Artist’s impression of the ‘singing comet’ 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam

The instruments are designed to study a number of phenomena, including: the interaction of 67P/C-G with the solar wind, a continuous stream of plasma emitted by the Sun; changes of activity on the comet; the structure and dynamics of the comet’s tenuous plasma ‘atmosphere’, known as the coma; and the physical properties of the cometary nucleus and surface.

But one observation has taken the RPC scientists somewhat by surprise. The comet seems to be emitting a ‘song’ in the form of oscillations in the magnetic field in the comet’s environment. It is being sung at 40-50 millihertz, far below human hearing, which typically picks up sound between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. To make the music audible to the human ear, the frequencies have been increased by a factor of about 10,000.

The music was heard clearly by the magnetometer experiment (RPC-Mag) for the first time in August, when Rosetta drew to within 100 km of 67P/C-G. The scientists think it must be produced in some way by the activity of the comet, as it releases neutral particles into space where they become electrically charged due to a process called ionisation. But the precise physical mechanism behind the oscillations remains a mystery.

This is exciting because it is completely new to us. We did not expect this and we are still working to understand the physics of what is happening,” says Karl-Heinz.

The sonification of the RPC-Mag data was compiled by German composer Manuel Senfft (www.tagirijus.de).

Rossetta Blog: Claudia

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