Well this is...unexpected. You know that comet the Rosetta spacecraft is headed towards? Turns out it's a two-fold comet — one that looks like a two-mile-wide rubber ducky tumbling through the depths of space. Landing the probe on this thing is going to be difficult, to say the least.
Images sent back by OSIRIS, the onboard imaging system, has confirmed the shape of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. At a distance of 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles), the comet appears to have a nucleus consisting of two distinctly separated parts.
"This is unlike any other comet we have ever seen before," noted OSIRIS project manager Carsten Güttler in a NASA statement.
It's not clear if the comet is a true contact binary made up of two gravitationally bound objects, or if they're melded together. Alternately, it's possible that the object has been sculpted weirdly through the uneven loss of ice or through impacts with other objects.
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Over the next few months, the scientists will try to determine more of the comet's physical and mineralogical properties — clues that could help them figure out whether the comet's body and head came from two different objects.
The animated gif provided by NASA is comprised of 36 individual images captured this past Monday. It has been sped up as a full rotation takes a little over 12 hours.
In a few months, Rosetta will get to within 10 meters of the comet at which time its onboard instruments will scan the surface. Then, if all goes well, it will attempt a landing with its spider-like probe.