Awakened in deep space

By | Science & Technology
Image courtesy of NASA

In 2004, the Rosetta spacecraft was manufactured by the European Space Agency (ESA) aimed to offer an improved understanding of how the solar system looked before planets were formed and to explore Comets.

Since the Rosetta spacecraft’s departure, it has performed several asteroid flybys and has even provided images of Mars after a flyby in 2007. However, for the past two and a half years the Rosetta space probe has been awaiting its next mission, waiting in an induced state of hibernation for its primary purpose. Its upcoming mission is being described as the most detailed study of a comet ever attempted. A venture which might explore every facet of the comet by deploying a smaller Landing Craft onto the surface.

After nearly three years the Rosetta has sparked back to life as it approaches its final destination, a whole decade since its launch. As the probe slowly powered up, it took a further eight hours to alert technicians on Earth of its status, which was approximately 500 million miles from Earth.  Even the radio signals used to relay information from the craft to Earth take up to 45 minutes to travel the distance at the speed of light.

Project scientist Matt Taylor spoke on behalf of his team in saying it was rather anticipating. The mission director Paolo Ferri claimed the “last quarter of an hour was one of the most challenging of my life’. With power up achieved and a successful check of its 21 instruments on board, the Orbiter may continue its comet chasing mission.

The targeted comet is known as Churyumov-Gerasimenko or simply as 67P; a large body of ice and rock currently 700 million miles from Earth. Its surface may consist of rock and dust from all over the galaxy as the comet might have collected matter from its distant travels. It is estimated the Rossetta probe may reach comet-67P in August 2014 and may start to send data back to the ESA as early as May. After catching up with the speeding comet it is set to orbit with the icy rock for a further 17 months to carry out the desired experiments, and of course deploy its Lander which has been named Philae.

Weighing in at only 100kg the Philae contains 10 of the total 21 instruments and aims to detach from the main probe on November 11th 2014. Using harpoons to anchor itself to the comets surface, it aims to slowly draw towards the surface, eventually drilling into the icy surface and affixing its legs. From this position the Philae might transmit data to the closely orbiting Rosetta probe about the composition and emissions of the comet, as it hurtles towards the sun.

The nature of this mission may possibily retire the Rosetta Orbiter project, as the solar cells used to power the device prove more useful when they keep in close distant with the Sun. After a lengthy tour of space, the Rosetta may live on through its scientific exploration and also due its relevance to celestial mining. With the topic of comet mining seeemily becoming a viable option, the experience gained by landing the Philae on a comet moving at 24600mph may certainly expand the knowledge base of such concepts.

What might the Rosseta Orbiter probe and its Lander uncover from its ancient and well-travelled comet? And to what extent might these discoveries change the way the solar system may be understood and how to go about utilising comets in the near future?

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