We are now hours away from ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft’s rendezvous with Comet 67p/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This connection has been a long time coming, as the probe was launched in March 2004 and has been on a 6.4 billion kilometer (4 billion mile) journey ever since.
Rosetta’s mission is the first of its kind, as no other spacecraft has orbited a comet’s nucleus. It will also accompany the comet as it heads toward the inner Solar System in order to understand how the Sun affects comets. The spacecraft has 12 instruments to image and analyze the comet’s nucleus to find out more about the core as well as the gas and particles that are being shed from the surface. It is hoped that understanding this mission will not only give us deeper insight into the anatomy and composition of a comet, which likely has organic molecules like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. Because these are the ingredients of amino acids and nucleic acids, this mission could give insight into the origin of life.
Once Rosetta reaches the comet and gets into position, it will be launching a lander. This will be the first time a manmade object has made a controlled connection with a comet. Gravitational forces aren’t enough to keep the lander on the comet, so it will employ harpoon-style anchors immediately after it touches the surface. The lander will take images of the comet’s surface, use a host of sensors in order to analyze the comet’s composition, and will even drill 20 cm down and analyze the samples microscopically.
As Rosetta has been approaching the comet, it has been sending back some amazing images. The images that will be obtained during the mission will be at a much higher resolution, but this is a pretty fantastic preview!
Image taken August 2 from a distance of 500 km (310 miles):
Image taken August 3 from a distance of 300 km (190 miles):
Image taken August 4 from a distance of 234 km (145 miles):
If you’d like to watch this rendezvous as it happens, ESA will be streaming the event live beginning at 4:00 am EDT (8:00 GMT).
[Hat tip: Phil Plait]