The trip took over a decade for Rosetta, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) space probe, to finally catch up to its target, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. After leaving the Earth from the launch site located in Kourou, French Guiana on March 2, 2004, Rosetta is expected to make an attempt to land on frozen ice ball hurtling through space at over 34,000 miles per hour in November.
Rosetta went into a hibernation state in July 2011 after making its final navigational adjustments to line up with the comet. This took place just prior to a near half billion mile journey from the Sun to a point where it had nearly caught the comet. Rosetta woke up in January to make a run at moving close enough to hitch a ride on the comet which will likely be this November. When the craft gets close enough, Rosetta will send a harpoon into the comet and attempt to land.
The trip was not an easy one, traveling 6.4 billion kilometers and five trips around the Sun. However, the trip is lining up to be a historic journey, becoming the first spacecraft ever to land on a comet. The feat was not one that could not be done without a slingshot effect. After launching, Rosetta utilized the gravitational pull of both the planet Mars and the Earth to accelerate to speeds fast enough to catch the comet.
In July of 2011 the speed needed was finally reached and Rosetta hurtled through space for its rendezvous to catch the comet. After a precise series of slow down maneuvers, the craft began a series of course corrections to line up for the potential landing on the surface of the comet. Now, with both the comet and Rosetta 250 million miles away from the earth, the craft will creep closer and closer until the two are close enough for Rosetta to latch onto the comet.
NASA brought back to Earth dust from a comet during the 1999 stardust mission. The dust collected contained an amino acid called glycin, a basic building block of life. Believed to be the Solar System’s building blocks, comets are likely leftovers from when the planets were first being formed and now hurtles through space.
Scientists feel that comets are the likely source of Earth’s first water and potentially could have seeded the world with needed building blocks for life. Having Rosetta land on the comet would provide scientists with data that may give more insight into how the Earth, Solar System, and life began, or at the very least, open the door to even more questions and rewrite the textbooks about comets for a long time.
Even before landing on the ball of ice, Rosetta has provided scientists with high-resolution photographs. The photographs the craft was taking showed that the comet was made up of two different pieces, joined by what is being called a “neck”. As the craft got closer, scientists were given a lot of new data and information with clear images of the comet. Seeing the two different pieces, it is believed that either the comet has eroded over time or some time in the distant past, two comets may have collided to form this current ball of ice.
While Rosetta started its journey to catch the comet in 2004, the mission was actually discussed in the late 1970s and in 1993 the project was finally approved. Now, 21 years after the project was approved, the vision is 62 miles away from the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and moving closer. Later in the month, five potential landing sites will be noted and near the middle of September the final landing point for Rosetta will be chosen for the projected touchdown on November 11.
By Carl Auer