Rosetta launched in 2004 and arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on August 6 2014. It is the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet, escort it as it orbits the Sun, and deploy a lander to its surface. Rosetta is an ESA mission with contributions from its member states and NASA. Rosetta’s Philae lander is provided by a consortium led by DLR, MPS, CNES and ASI.
After a decade-long journey chasing its target, ESA’s Rosetta became the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet, opening a new chapter in Solar System exploration.
Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and Rosetta now lie more than 405 million kilometres from Earth, about half way between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, rushing towards the inner Solar System at nearly 55 000 kilometres per hour.
The comet is in an elliptical 6.5-year orbit that takes it from beyond Jupiter at its furthest point, to between the orbits of Mars and Earth at its closest to the Sun. Rosetta will accompany it for over a year as they swing around the Sun and back out towards Jupiter again.
Comets are considered to be primitive building blocks of the Solar System and may have helped to ‘seed’ Earth with water, perhaps even the ingredients for life. But many fundamental questions about these enigmatic objects remain, and through a comprehensive, in-situ study of the comet, Rosetta aims to unlock the secrets within.
The journey to the comet was not straightforward, however. Since its launch in 2004, Rosetta had to make three gravity-assist flybys of Earth and one of Mars to help it on course to its rendezvous with the comet. This complex course also allowed Rosetta to pass by asteroids Šteins and Lutetia, obtaining unprecedented views and scientific data on these two objects.
“After ten years, five months and four days travelling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometres, we are delighted to announce finally ‘we are here’,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General.
The last of a series of ten rendezvous maneuvers that began in May adjusted Rosetta’s speed and trajectory gradually to match those of the comet. If any of these maneuvers had failed, the mission would have been lost, and the spacecraft would simply have flown by the comet.
“We have come an extraordinarily long way since the mission concept was first discussed in the late 1970s and approved in 1993, and now we are ready to open a treasure chest of scientific discovery that is destined to rewrite the textbooks on comets for even more decades to come,” said Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.
The comet began to reveal its personality while Rosetta was on its approach. Images taken by the OSIRIS camera between late April and early June showed that its activity was variable. The comet’s ‘coma’ – an extended envelope of gas and dust – became rapidly brighter and then died down again over the course of those six weeks.
In the same period, first measurements from the Microwave Instrument for the Rosetta Orbiter, MIRO, suggested that the comet was emitting water vapor into space at about 300 millilitres per second.
Meanwhile, the Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer (VIRTIS), measured the comet’s average temperature to be about –70ºC, indicating that the surface is predominantly dark and dusty rather than clean and icy.
Then, stunning images taken from a distance of about 12 000 km began to reveal that the nucleus comprises two distinct segments joined by a ‘neck’, giving it a duck-like appearance. Subsequent images showed more and more detail.
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August from a distance of 285 km. The image resolution is 5.3 metres/pixel. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
“Our first clear views of the comet have given us plenty to think about,” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.
“Is this double-lobed structure built from two separate comets that came together in the Solar System’s history, or is it one comet that has eroded dramatically and asymmetrically over time? Rosetta, by design, is in the best place to study one of these unique objects.”
More of the suite of instruments will provide a detailed scientific study of the comet, scrutinizing the surface for a target site for the Philae lander.
Eventually, Rosetta will attempt a close, near-circular orbit at 30 km and, depending on the activity of the comet, perhaps come even closer.
“Arriving at the comet is really only just the beginning of an even bigger adventure, with greater challenges still to come as we learn how to operate in this uncharted environment, start to orbit and, eventually, land,” says Sylvain Lodiot, ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft operations manager.
As many as five possible landing sites will be identified by late August, before the primary site is identified in mid-September. The final timeline for the sequence of events for deploying Philae – currently expected for 11 November – will be confirmed by the middle of October.
“Over the next few months, in addition to characterizing the comet nucleus and setting the bar for the rest of the mission, we will begin final preparations for another space history first: landing on a comet,” says Matt.
“After landing, Rosetta will continue to accompany the comet until its closest approach to the Sun in August 2015 and beyond, watching its behavior from close quarters to give us a unique insight and real-time experience of how a comet works as it hurtles around the Sun.”
This animation comprises 101 images acquired by the Navigation Camera on board ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft as it approached comet 67P/C-G in August 2014. The first image was taken on 1 August at 11:07 UTC (12:07 CEST), at a distance of 832 km. The last image was taken 6 August at 06:07 UTC (08:07 CEST) at a distance of 110 km. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
About the European Space Agency
The European Space Agency (ESA) is Europe’s gateway to space. It is an intergovernmental organization, created in 1975, with the mission to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space delivers benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.
ESA has 20 Member States: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, of whom 18 are Member States of the EU.
ESA has Cooperation Agreements with eight other Member States of the EU. Canada takes part in some ESA programs under a Cooperation Agreement.
ESA is also working with the EU on implementing the Galileo and Copernicus programs.
By coordinating the financial and intellectual resources of its members, ESA can undertake programs and activities far beyond the scope of any single European country.
ESA develops the launchers, spacecraft and ground facilities needed to keep Europe at the forefront of global space activities.
Today, it launches satellites for Earth observation, navigation, telecommunications and astronomy, sends probes to the far reaches of the Solar System and cooperates in the human exploration of space.
Posted by: Soderman/SSERVI Staff