You may have heard of the economic sinkhole of the 1970’s, consuming small town banks and farming businesses alike. Okay, maybe you haven’t, but physical sinkholes rarely make the news, and we’ve certainly never witnessed one on an asteroid before. Now, it may all be seen, thanks to the Rosetta Spacecraft, the first and (currently) in standard orbit of an asteroid.
YES, SINKHOLES… IN SPACE
This is exactly what a team of University of Maryland scientists think Rosetta is seeing on the surface of comet 67p/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The collapsed structures appear to span ten to several hundred meters in diameter. Officials suspect these kinds of sinkhole formed in ways not unlike the way they do down here, on Earth.
HOW WE CAME TO KNOW THE HOLES
Scientists initially hypothesized that major explosive events caused the sinkholes, mainly because Rosetta captured such entropic images on its approach. However, after applying the mathematical calculations to plot the path of ejected asteroid debris, scientists could see that something was amiss. In this low gravity, only sinkholes could create such dispersal patterns.
ROSETTA’S EQUIPMENT AND HOLY SHAPES
This analysis was made possible by Rosetta’s Optical, Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) camera. The University of Maryland research team posited two types of sinkhole from their research: first are the shallow ones, not dissimilar to pits visible on other comets. But another, deeper kind of structure with sharp inclines was also noted, featuring high-pressure jets of gas and dust streaming into the darkness.
The running theory’s that larger pits take shape when a major heat source beneath the surface of a comet sublimates ice. In other words, the ice (a solid) suddenly or rapidly enters a phase change, transforming into gas. Such a reaction immediately removes support for any less subterranean layers, because water vapor doesn’t really stay in one place for long. After surface layers fall, a big, deep, circular pit is left for us to ogle, thanks to the sinkhole and Rosetta’s OSIRIS.
MISCELLANEOUS ROSETTA FACTS
Launched on March 2nd, 2004 from Guiana and operated by the European Space Agency, Rosetta is a robotic space probe sent to perform the most comprehensive study of a comet yet attempted. It cost roughly one billion Euros. NASA backs the University of Maryland’s participation in the program.