With an orbital period of 6.45 years, Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko is a Jupiter-Family Comet, originating from the Kuiper belt, the outermost parts of our solar system.
4.3 by 4.1 km (2.7 by 2.5 mi) at its longest and widest dimensions, the comet was first observed 969 by Soviet astronomers Klim Ivanovych Churyumov and Svetlana Ivanovna Gerasimenko, after whom it is named.
Contact Binary Comet
Consisting of two lobes connected by a narrow neck, the Comet was the destination of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, launched on 2 March 2004.
The two-lobed shape of the comet is the result of a gentle, low-velocity collision of two objects, which is called a contact binary. It is similar in shape to the mysterious object dubbed Ultima Thule, located in the outermost parts of the Kuiper Belt.
After traveling billions of miles through space, the Rosetta rendezvoused with Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 6 August 2014 and entered orbit on 10 September 2014.
A few days later, and in order to study the comet’s surface, the spacecraft orbiting the massive rock dropped the Philae, lander onto the surface of the space rock, becoming the first spacecraft to land on a comet nucleus.
The mission successfully ended with Rosetta landing on the comet on September 30, 2016.
Ancient Gods Among the Stars
Detailed studies of the comet’s surface revealed twenty-six distinctive regions on Churyumov–Gerasimenko, all of which have been named after an ancient Egyptian deity.
The regions discovered on the larger lobe of the comet were named after Egyptian gods, while the regions on the comet’s smaller lobe were named after ancient Egyptian goddesses.
Here are the 26 regions and their designations.
|Ma’at||Dust covered||Ash||Dust covered||Babi||Dust covered|
|Seth||Pitted and brittle material||Hatmehit||Large-scale depression||Nut||Large-scale depression|
|Anhur||Rock-like, rather friable||Geb||Rock-like||Sobek||Rock-like|
Why Ancient Egyptian Deities?
How exactly did the regions of the comet get all the ancient Egyptian names?
Before speaking about the Egyptian names on the comet, we must mention that the Rosetta spacecraft which landed on the comet, and which is responsible for the plethora of data we learned, and countless images from the comet is named after the Rosetta Stone, a massive rock that was inscribed with three versions of a decree issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC during the Ptolemaic dynasty on behalf of King Ptolemy V.
The top and middle texts are in Ancient Egyptian using hieroglyphic script and Demotic script, respectively, while the bottom is in Ancient Greek.
The stone was crucial to understanding the language of the ancient Egyptians, and consequently the country’s extensive history.
“Just as the Rosetta Stone provided the key to an ancient [civilization], so ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft will unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our Solar System — the comets,” explained the ESA website.
And just as Egyptologists worked centuries in unraveling the mysteries of our civilization, hidden beneath the vast golden sands of Egypt, astronomers too are beginning to unravel the mysteries of our solar system by studying comets such as P67.
Only astronomers are trying to excavate an object of even greater antiquity, one that has been traveling around the sun for time immemorial.
That’s why it’s not surprising that scientists decided to use Egyptian deities and name the regions on the surface of the comet.
Back in a 2015 article describing the reason why astronomers decided to use the Egyptian names, M. Ramy El-Maarry from the University of Bern explained:
“Early on in the mapping phase, we decided on naming the regions of the comet using names of ancient Egyptian deities. We wanted to adhere to the ancient Egyptian theme of the mission and have a large inventory of names if needed. Luckily, ancient Egyptians had so many deities in their long history that made this an easy decision. Moreover, many of the names were catchy, easy to remember, and more importantly, easy to pronounce.”
“I remember we initially tried using names of ancient cities and we were coming across a lot of names that were very difficult to wrap your tongue around, even for an Egyptian like me! So we decided to use the following naming convention: gods for the ‘body’ lobe and goddesses for the ‘head’. We picked Hapi for the neck since Hapi is the Nile god, and we figured that he should separate the lobes in the same way that the Nile splits Egypt into an eastern and western side.”
“Of course, there were obvious names to discard (such as Osiris!) so we decided to skip on all ‘world-famous’ gods such as R’a and Amun, partly because they have been used before in other missions, but also to introduce people to lesser-known names.”
The Rosetta probe also has an instrument onboard called Osiris.
Furthermore, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, an asteroid study, and sample-return mission is also named after an ancient Egyptian god.
OSIRIS-REx is an acronym, and each letter or combination of letters relates to part of the project.
- O – Origins
- SI – Spectral Interpretation
- RI – Resource Identification
- S – Security
- REx – Regolith Explorer
But as explained by Live Science, the acronym OSIRIS was chosen in reference to the ancient mythological Egyptian god Osiris, the underworld lord of the dead.