Rosetta Spots Massive Sinkholes On Comet 67P, Which Could Indicate Interior Caverns

The sinkholes have been detected on other comets, but never in such an early stage of development.

Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft, currently in orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, has revealed the existence of large sinkholes on the object’s surface, large enough to engulf the great pyramid of Giza.

Rosetta arrived at 67P in August of 2014, making history when the Philae lander became the first man-made object to alight on a comet, as the Inquisitr previously reported. The orbiter has continued to relay data since then, and a new study in the journal Nature has detailed the existence of giant sinkholes, which may reveal the existence of caverns within the comet.

As many as 18 different sinkholes have been detected on the comet, according to Yahoo News, and while none are located anywhere near the Philae lander, some have been measured at enormous sizes. One sinkhole in particular measures 656 feet in diameter and 590 feet deep, making it larger than one of the great pyramids.

Researchers are not entirely sure what causes the sinkholes to form, though they believe it may be connected to rising temperatures as the comet approaches the sun. Similar formations have been noted on other comets, though they had already been filed by accumulated debris over time. Scientists assert that they are observing newly formed sinkholes on 67P, several of which are currently ejecting jets of dust, according to lead researcher Jean-Baptiste Vincent, who is associated with the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.

“We see jets arising from the fractured areas of the walls inside the pits. These fractures mean that volatiles trapped under the surface can be warmed more easily and subsequently escape into space.”

Initially, researchers believed that the “pits” were formed during explosive outburst events, as Mashable notes. One such occurrence was observed by Rosetta earlier during its stay at the comet, but upon examination, scientists determined that not enough material was ejected into space to account for the fissure. This led them to conclude that the formations could indeed be sinkholes, which originate in a collapse similar to those on Earth. Such an event would take place in slow-motion, however, due to the comet’s lowered gravity.

While Rosetta’s mission was originally scheduled to end in December, the European Space Agency extended it last week. The orbiter will now remain active until September 2016, during which time it will continue to study comet 67P and its unusual sinkholes.

[Image: Vincent et al., Nature Publishing Group via Mashable]