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Astronomy, Astrophysics, Materials Science, Space, Stars, Technology

Rosetta space probe: Landing on a comet to observe nucleus and environment

Rosetta Orbiter. Credit: Copyright ESA/ATG medialab

Rosetta Orbiter.
Credit: Copyright ESA/ATG medialab

In March 2004, the Rosetta orbiter was launched into space to analyse and observe the nucleus and environment of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Little research has been done on comets and they still hold many secrets. One theory is that comets brought water (and thus possibly even life) to Earth. Although space probes have been able to carry out isolated investigations, this has only been while the comets were flying past. At least until now. This will be the first probe not only to collect measurement data “en passant” as it were, but to accompany the comet — and even to land on it.

Little research has been done on comets and they still hold many secrets. One theory is that comets brought water (and thus possibly even life) to earth. Although space probes have been able to carry out isolated investigations, this has only been while the comets were flying past. At least until now. The European Space Agency (ESA) developed the Rosetta space probe in conjunction with numerous European institutions. This will be the first probe not only to collect measurement data “en passant” as it were, but to accompany the comet — and even to land on it.

Various devices on board are measuring, mapping and analysing the comet and the gases and molecules in its environment over a period of two years. Even the interior of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko will not be spared. A specially designed “lander” will — as its name implies — land on the surface of the comet and investigate its properties and its nucleus.

Although the probe will not reach the comet until August, the first measurements have already been taken. During the flight to the comet, the mass spectrometer analysed Rosetta’s exhaust gases and the components of the calibration gases. The equipment tests carried out recently were also successful and nothing now stands in the way of the encounter with 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. However, the approach manoeuvre in May is likely to be critical. If the probe misses the comet’s orbit, it will drift too far away to “attach” itself to it and accompany it. Once Rosetta is in the comet’s orbit, however, the “real” measurements can begin — and will start to reveal more about comets.

Empa Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology

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