Rosetta Spacecraft Piggy-Backs on Comet to Solve Ancient Mysteries

Credit: ThinkStock

Credit: ThinkStock

Scientists at the European Space Agency underwent a nerve-racking 23 minutes on Wednesday, waiting to see if their complex calculations would work as expected. The goal: a first-of-its-kind maneuver to direct the Rosetta spacecraft into the orbit of a comet in order to study that celestial body. At the end of the interminable wait? Victory! The pan-European team tweeted “Hello, comet!” in 23 languages as soon as they received the mission accomplished affirmation from the space craft.

Heck of a Journey

In part, people were relieved that the mission was a success because of the amount of time and effort put into it thus far. Rosetta began its journey way back in 2004—and what a journey it has been. In order to gather enough speed to catch up with the fast-cruising comet, dubbed 67P, scientists piloted the craft to swing past the Earth, whose gravity catapulted it all the way to Mars, which in turn flung it back to Earth. Then out to an asteroid, and then back to Earth. And then out into deep space. Good golly, that thing has been flinging and pinging all over the solar system!

The deep space portion of Rosetta’s intrepid path ended up causing some complications, and the Earth crew was forced to put the craft’s systems into hibernation, hoping it would continue on its laid-out path to the elusive 67P. Happily, in January the craft successfully woke up from its two-and-a-half year nap through space right on course, and controllers have since been slowing the craft for this most recent maneuver.

Riddles of the Solar System

Now that’s its successfully locked into the comet’s orbit, Rosetta will travel with the comet around the sun for about a year, allowing scientists to study the comet’s makeup and processes. For all their galactic missions, space scientists actually know very little about comets—like what they’re made of, how they function in space and the formation of their iconic tails. In fact, until Rosetta’s piggy-back onto the comet’s orbit, we didn’t even know what comets look like.

Why such interest in comets specifically? These speedy forms comprise some of the most ancient entities in the solar system. As one researcher stated:

They're frozen pieces of what the solar system is made of. They're completely untouched, and they really offer a glimpse into how our planet is formed and ultimately how we came to be.

Research possibilities up the wazoo.

More Danger Ahead

As if pulling off this latest delicate orbiting maneuver wasn’t tricky enough, researchers hope in November to also propel a landing vehicle from Rosetta to actually land right on the comet’s surface. Since the comet is only about 2.5 miles in diameter and moving at approximately 85,000 mph, this will be like a cosmic version of pin the tail on the donkey—if the donkey was attached to a car speeding down the highway. Pair that with the vapor and dust that shoots out from comets as they near the sun, and the Rosetta vehicle is facing quite a daunting task.

But hey, things have worked out thus far, even with some setbacks. Here’s to good vibes for Rosetta as it attempts to unlock mysteries of the universe.



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