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Rosetta spots sinkholes on comet 67P

"These strange, circular pits are just as deep as they are wide," said researcher Dennis Bodewits.

By Brooks Hays
A closeup of the comet's surface reveals one of the comet's most active sinkholes. Photo by Vincent/Nature
A closeup of the comet's surface reveals one of the comet's most active sinkholes. Photo by Vincent/Nature

COLLEGE PARK, Md., July 1 (UPI) -- An in-depth study of images captured by the Rosetta probe in 2014 has revealed a series of pits on the surface of comet 67P to be sinkholes.

The new research suggests the comet's surface is highly active. In addition to shedding debris and expelling inner vapors as it approaches the sun, the comet is undergoing rapid structural changes.

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In studying Rosetta's images, scientists identified two types of pits -- a shallower depression resembling pits seen on other comets and a deeper pit with steep walls. The deeper pits were also found to have jets of gas and dust streaming up and out the sides.

"These strange, circular pits are just as deep as they are wide. Rosetta can peer right into them," Dennis Bodewits, an assistant research scientist in astronomy at the University of Maryland, explained in press release.

Bodewits is the co-author of a new study on the pits, published this week in the journal Nature.

"We propose that they are sinkholes, formed by a surface collapse process very similar to the way sinkholes form here on Earth," Bodewits added.

Bodewits and his colleagues believe the sinkholes form after material beneath the comet's surface (which has been heated by the sun) causes large chunks of ice to melt, leaving empty pockets of dust and dirt. Eventually, the ceilings of these pockets collapse, revealing a sinkhole.

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Researchers hope the sinkholes can reveal further insights into the internal structure and chemical makeup of the comet's nucleus.

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