The European Space Agency (ESA), with an assist from NASA, is in the final stages of its mission to land a spacecraft, Rosetta, on a distant comet. After traveling through space for 10 years, Rosetta has arrived at Comet 67P/C-G. After performing an engine burn, the spacecraft settled within 62 miles of the comet’s surface. Currently, the comet and Rosetta are flying through space together about 251 million miles from earth. NASA has contributed special instrumentation and a significant amount of electronics to ESA in assistance of this mission.
Rosetta will follow the comet as it travels through space. Its mission is to study the comet, focusing on its composition and environment, for least two years. It will observe how the frozen comet reacts as it moves closer to the sun. There are also plans to send a module to the surface of the comet.
The spacecraft is named after the Rosetta Stone that was used to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. It is hoped that the craft will help to answer many questions surrounding comets, including the origin of our solar system and as a potential delivery system for water to our planet.
The launch of the NASA and ESA mission to land a spacecraft on Comet 67P/C-G was initially delayed for a year due to rocket failure. After its launch, Rosetta boosted its speed by making four flybys, one around Mars and three around Earth. On its journey, it relayed information regarding asteroids and other comets as well as Mars and Venus.
In June 2011, Rosetta was placed in hibernation mode by ESA in preparation for its 373 million mile voyage across space. It awoke the craft in January 2014 while it was still four months from its rendezvous with the comet just inside of Jupiter’s orbit.
Two Russian astronomers first discovered the comet. It orbits the sun every 6.5 years between the orbits of Earth and Jupiter. Comet 67P/C-G is believed to have originated in the Kuiper Belt where icy bodies regularly collide and are captured by the gravitational pull of Jupiter.
Box-like Rosetta weighs around 6,600 pounds and has two wing-like solar panel extensions. It is the first spacecraft to strictly rely on solar power. On board are 11 instruments designed to provide a variety of information about comet composition and behavior. Rosetta will begin mapping the comet this month.
Once aligned correctly, Rosetta will deploy a module, Philae, to land on the comet. This is scheduled for later this year in November. After landing, the module will anchor itself to the comet to prevent it from escaping the comet’s weak gravitational field. Philae will utilize several instruments, including a drill, to carry out a variety of tests planned by ESA.
While Philae is exploring the comet’s surface, Rosetta will continue to map the comet and its magnetic field. It will also monitor erupting geysers and measure their outflow rates. In 2006, scientists captured dust from the comet Wild 2. In that dust, they found particles rich in organic matter that have raised questions about the origins of life. Scientists will look for organic material on Comet 67P/C-G as well.
The NASA and ESA mission to land on a comet will continue as Rosetta and Philae will accompany Comet 67P/C-G to its closest point to the sun. The crafts will then follow the comet back into space until the conclusion of its mission, believed to be sometime in December 2015.
By Hans Benes