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Newly released Rosetta data has shown, for at least one area on the surface of Comet 67P/C-G, the process by which the surface ice is replaced by water ice from below as the comet rotates and sunlight causes the surface ice to evaporate away.
The data suggest that water ice on and a few centimetres below the surface ‘sublimates’ when illuminated by sunlight, turning it into gas that then flows away from the comet. Then, as the comet rotates and the same region falls into darkness, the surface rapidly cools again. However, the underlying layers remain warm owing to the sunlight they received in the previous hours, and, as a result, subsurface water ice keeps sublimating and finding its way to the surface through the comet’s porous interior.
But as soon as this ‘underground’ water vapour reaches the cold surface, it freezes again, blanketing that patch of comet surface with a thin layer of fresh ice. Eventually, as the Sun rises again over this part of the surface on the next comet day, the molecules in the newly formed ice layer are the first to sublimate and flow away from the comet, restarting the cycle.
They discovered this process when they noticed surface ice evaporating in this region during the comet’s 6-hour day and then getting resurfaced with ice during the comet’s 6-hour night.
Meanwhile, Rosetta is about to move as much as 1500 kilometers away from the comet for several weeks so that its scientists can study its coma more broadly.