In what has to be one of the most beautiful simulations I’ve ever seen, this video from the European Space Agency shows simulated interaction of solar winds with 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the famous comet targeted the Rosetta mission.
This 3D simulation models the plasma interactions between comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and the solar wind. The simulated conditions represent those expected at 1.3 AU from the Sun, close to perihelion, where the comet is strongly active – a gas production rate of 5 × 1027 molecules/s is assumed here. The solar wind approaches from the left at ~400 km/s, carrying with it the embedded interplanetary magnetic field with a strength of about 5 nT. The material from the comet’s nucleus forms an extensive envelope, the coma, several million km in size (not shown here). Part of the neutral gas molecules in the coma gets ionised by solar UV radiation or by charge exchange with the solar wind particles. These cometary ions are picked up by the approaching solar wind, a process known as mass loading, and cause it to slow down. In the model simulation enough ions are produced and picked up by the solar wind to slow it down from supersonic speed to sub sonic speed, causing a bow shock to form in front of the comet.
As you may recall, Rosetta’s “Philae” robot lander recently detected carbon 16 organic compounds on the surface of the comet, described as “carbon and nitrogen-rich.” The finding is fueling scientific theories that life on Earth could have started as a result of a comet strike.
The movie is based on descriptions provided in the paper “Dynamical features and spatial structures of the plasma interaction region of 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and the solar wind” by C. Koenders et al., Planetary and Space Science (105) January 2015.
Credit: Modelling and simulation: Technische Universität Braunschweig and Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; Visualisation: Zuse-Institut Berlin