2nd March 2004 saw the European Space Agency launch Europe’s comet chaser, Rosetta. After a meandering 10 year, 4 billion mile trip across the solar system, Rosetta commenced its endgame: rendezvousing with and entering orbit around Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
67P is a frozen, monolithic, ancient body, and to reach it Rosetta completed a series of ‘sling-shots’ known as gravity assists. Interacting with the gravitational field of various planets, Rosetta used them to increase or decrease its speed and trajectory, all with the ultimate goal of making its appointment with Comet 67P.
Before we move on, can we take a second to understand and appreciate not just the magnitude, but the scope of that 10 year journey. If that wasn’t enough, Rosetta then attempted a first for mankind, and, after much trepidation, succeeded in dropping Philae – the mission’s lander – onto the surface of a comet hurtling through space at 40,000mph.
In a less than ideal landing, Philae settled out of the Sun’s energy giving rays, thus it had limited power to complete various tests on the comet and transmit the data back to the orbiting Rosetta.
In what was a fairly emotional exchange between Rosetta and Philae on 15 November 2014 (two machines, albeit with two very well presented, humanised twitter accounts) the little lander powered down into a stasis mode.
A successful mission nevertheless, with oodles of data collected on a comet that has not only travelled the length and breadth of our solar system, but has also been around for roughly 4 billion years. Oh and did I mention that the comet is singing into space? Some of Rosetta’s instruments picked up this eerie whale-like song and, having ruled out oscillations in the magnetic field of the comet, could be due to the effects caused by solar wind.[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/176387011″ params=”color=ff5500″ width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
But it gets better. 14 June 2015 saw the Philae lander reach out to the team on Earth with a message that, put simply, read: “I’m online and feeling fine”. The mission having already surpassed our wildest dreams now had a chance to witness a very specific set of circumstances.
Infographic by Ismael Bashir
Currently, 67P remains a frozen beast of a rock, its mass pushing close to 10 billion tonnes speeding through space. But it is the direction that it’s heading that is getting scientists excited, as it is moving closer to the sun.
Philae will (fingers crossed) be operational and analysing the surface of the comet as it is warmed by the sun. As the ice melts the comet will shake off an estimated 20 metres of dust and debris, exposing… well, that’s the point: we don’t know what it will expose. With Philae in situ, we will hopefully be finding out.
In the last few days scientists have been preparing Rosetta for a daring series of ‘dives’ with the aim of bringing it closer to 67P, boosting its ability to communicate with Philae and beam its findings back to Earth. With a very real chance that the dust kicked up by the comet will interfere with proceedings, it is a risky manoeuvre, yet in-keeping with the ballsy mission as a whole.
As more data packets arrive for analysis, expect some pretty big announcements over the coming months, especially in August when the comet, Rosetta, and Philae will reach their closest point to the sun before fading quietly into the eternal night of space.
ESA and Platige Image produced this excellent short film detailing Rosetta’s journey.