After rising from a 31-month electronically induced hibernation this week, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft is hot on the trail of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Launched in 2004, it has been a long road for Rosetta, which is now cruising about 5.6 million miles (9 million kilometers) from the comet and is closing in fast. Along the way it has swung by Earth three times and made one flyby of Mars as well, in order to get a gravitational boost in speed for the trip to the comet.
Rosetta was placed into deep sleep in June 2011 as it traveled out to Jupiter’s orbit. Now on its way back toward the inner solar system, and currently at a distance of 416 million miles (670 million kilometers) from the sun, the spacecraft receives enough solar rays to power up so that it can chase down its icy quarry.
“We have a busy few months ahead preparing the spacecraft and its instruments for the operational challenges demanded by a lengthy, close-up study of a comet that, until we get there, we know very little about,” said Andrea Accomazzo, ESA’s Rosetta operations manager.
If all goes as planned in May, the plucky probe will get its first close-up images when it comes within 1.2 million miles (2 million kilometers) of the comet. A few weeks later it is expected to enter into orbit around the comet and begin mapping its 2.5-mile-wide (4-kilometer-wide) icy nucleus, searching for a potential landing site for its 22o-pound (100-kilogram) lander, named Philae.
On November 11, Philae is scheduled to be released from the mother ship, hopefully making a soft landing on the comet’s nucleus—the first such attempt in history. During its perilous descent, it will release two harpoons to help anchor it to the surface in the low-gravity environment.
Of course, success depends on finding a suitable landing site so that Philae actually makes it to the ground intact. If all goes well, we can expect it to beam back breathtaking panoramic images of the exotic surroundings, even as it drills down into the comet’s icy surface and analyzes its composition for organic material, potential building blocks of life.
“All other comet missions have been flybys, capturing fleeting moments in the life of these icy treasure chests,” said Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist in an online statement.
“With Rosetta, we will track the evolution of a comet on a daily basis and for over a year, giving us a unique insight into a comet’s behavior and ultimately helping us to decipher their role in the formation of the Solar System.”