Rosetta, the comet-chasing spacecraft, after almost three years of mechanical hibernation, awakens and sends its first signal back to Earth. Scientists cheering on Monday were hopeful that the spacecraft will be able to land on a comet in the near future. At 1:18 p.m. EST the European Space Agency (ESA) received the message – some 800 million kilometers away. The ESA also turned this into a social media event. The awakening of the spacecraft prompted a series of “Hello World!” tweets in multiple languages that filled social media traffic.
Scientists were in the dark about the spacecraft’s fate until now. In 2011, to conserve energy, systems had to be shutdown to preserve the spacecraft for its decade-long mission to reach the comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The phone home marks the final stage for Rosetta before it makes its rendezvous with 67P this summer. The craft will embark on maneuvers to observe and analyze the comet. The comet is said to be made of rock and ice and is around 2.5 miles in diameter. Furthermore, the craft will descend on the comet until it can orbit close enough to drop a lander named Philae onto the comet’s surface in November. While the lander is on the surface of the comet it will dig for samples and then analyze them onsite.
Joel Parker of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said that even though the mission was launched ten years ago, a majority of the equipment built prior to 2004 is still considered state-of-the-art. As well, he said that the Boulder, Colorado institute developed an ultra-sensitive camera named ALICE that has the ability to detect a wide range of different chemicals in the comet’s surface.
Most comets originate from the Oort Cloud, a spherical mass of icy, rocky objects, located on the outer rim of the solar system. The Oort Cloud creates the cosmic boundary of our solar system. Scientists hope that this mission will help them better understand their composition to develop better theories about the creation of the solar system. The comet-chasing spacecraft, Rosetta, on its three-year trip is in the final stages into carrying out this mission.
Comets are regarded as cosmic time capsules due to being nearly unaltered after billions of years since the creation of our solar system. Comets are also theorized to be the reason for liquid water on some alien worlds. While comets may be essential to life in the solar system, they do pose a serious threat to Earth.
Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations of the ESA, explains that over billions of years comets have provided Earth with the resources that have altered our evolution. When comets collide into planets the leave behind liquid water and elements that have the ability to harbor evolution-prone life. On the other hand, he stated that there have been many hypothesized scenarios about objects like comets hitting our home planet that could cause an extinction-level event. Therefore, understanding comets is imperative to our future survival.
The ESA states that after Philae lands it will send back results and analyses of the comet until either its batteries die or it is damaged beyond workability. To further these studies, NASA plans to follow in the footsteps of the Europeans and will send its own unmanned spacecraft towards a comet between 2019 and 2021. NASA will try and capture a small comet and tow it back towards Earth so that it may be analyzed by astronauts on a spacewalk. As aerospace technology progresses, scientists will be able to send out more spacecraft. Nonetheless, Rosetta phoning home after a three-year slumber marks the next step in man’s ongoing mission to conquer worlds beyond our own.
By: Alex Lemieux