Landing human technology on other orbital bodies has long been the ambition of organisations such as NASA and the ESA. This ambition took us to the Moon, Mars, Venus, and the far reaches of the solar system. However in recent years our attention has turned less from the planets and the moons of the solar system and more towards comets and asteroids. We believe that their primitive states hold some of the answers to the deepest mysteries of the formation of the solar system.
Rosetta is Europe’s latest big mission – the spacecraft is on route to the 4.5km wide Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (what a mouthful!). After launching nearly 10 years ago, the spacecraft has taken a very long route out to its destination. Rosetta has already made a number of trips to some of the inner planets – using their gravity to slingshot itself out into the outer solar system.
In addition, Rosetta has already visited two asteroids on its journey, but has spent the past 31 months in a state of hibernation to conserve power as it raced towards Comet 67P, on a journey past Jupiter. The engineers had an hour window in which they expected to receive the signal from Rosetta, and after an understandably tense 45 minutes they got it.
The signal was simply a ‘bleep’ picked up in California by a 70m NASA dish before being rerouted to Germany. It wasn’t much of a grand awakening as the signal contained no information, but it did let those in the command centre know that Rosetta was working perfectly and still well on its way to the comet. However, getting all of Rosetta’s systems up and running again is neither a quick nor an easy task.
Each individual command sent out takes 45 minutes to traverse the great distance between Earth and the craft, and then another 45 minutes for the completion signal to return. You may ask why it was shut down in the first place. Well, Rosetta’s solar panels would collect such little energy that the decision was made to turn it off for the duration of the flight. Even now, the checks being done are only very basic in order to conserve the precious power stored in its batteries.
Andrea Accomazzo said ‘..from mid-March to the end of April, we will begin switching on the instruments one by one. We’ll check them out and in a few cases even update their software.’ It won’t be until May that the engines will be switched back on and the final journey towards the comet will begin. Rosetta’s journey has been a long one and in the next 4 months, the distance between them will reduce from 9 million kilometres down to just 10 by mid-September.
Rosetta’s mission on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (doesn’t get any easier to say!) is to monitor the physical changes that take place as it approaches the Sun. Measurements will take place from the main craft while orbiting at a short distance, but also from the Philae Lander – a small probe – that will report back any changes taking place at the surface of the comet. One of those most important studies will be of the comet’s nucleus, as from Earth we aren’t able to probe inside the body, and so the data will provide an invaluable insight into where the comet formed and its life throughout the evolution of the Solar System.
Ultimately, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko could act as a time capsule having preserved material from the early solar system. By analysing the rock samples from the comet we may better understand things like planetary formation and what our Sun is made of (something that is rather important as we are a second generation solar system, meaning that our Sun and planets all formed from a previous star).
Rosetta’s mission in 2014 is expected to take a very prominent role in the professional and online scientific community as it nears the comet and fulfills its most important role yet. So stay tuned, folks, as ever we’ll keep you updated with the latest news.