If Rosetta Spacecraft Wakes Up In Time, It Will Complete 10-Year Mission To Land On Moving Comet

By Ajit Jha on January 17, 2014 2:04 PM EST

Rosetta at comet
Artist’s impression of the Rosetta orbiter at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. (Photo: ESA–C. Carreau/ATG medialab)

The Rosetta spacecraft was launched in 2004 to explore some of the deepest questions about our planet and the solar system such as the origin of water and life. As part of its mission, Rosetta needs to accomplish the seemingly impossible: land on a speeding comet. Things are going as planned: in May 2014, it is expected to make a rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. But in order to do so, first Rosetta has to wake up.

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Along its journey, the spacecraft has already passed two asteroids, Steins in 2008 and Lutetia in 2010, but neither was right for landing. The spacecraft needed the right velocity to match the comet's orbit. So the spacecraft was put into hibernation in June of 2011 to conserve its energy, and now the plans are that this sleeping giant will wake up on the morning of January 20. This 3-ton spacecraft has been hurtling into space for over ten years with the focused goal to land on the surface of the 4 km wide comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Things seem to be running on schedule.

If successful, Rosetta will be the first spacecraft to accomplish this feat, if successful. The spacecraft will deploy a robot to ensure controlled landing on a comet. For the next two years after the landing, the spacecraft will probe the comet's nucleus and environment to study how a frozen comet behaves as it approaches the sun.  

There are several hurdles to meet before Rosetta successfully accomplishes its goal. At the time of its wake up, it will already be 673 million km away from Earth. In case the spacecraft lacks sufficient power, it will be put to sleep again, and try again later. Software commands to wake up autonomously are already on space craft, but if there are several failures to wake up, it could bring the mission to its aborted end.

Rosetta will explore 67P's surface to find a landing spot in Aug. 2014, while Philae, Rosetta's on-board lander, will eject out of the spacecraft on to the surface of the comet in Nov. 2014. No one knows what the surface of the comet will be like — soft or hard or icy or rocky — so researchers involved don't know whether Philae will sink into or bounce off the surface. In addition, weak gravitation of the comet will make it challenging for the spacecraft to hold on to the surface of the comet.    

The task of exploring the comet will be performed by the Philae lander once on the comet's surface. It will deploy sophisticated instruments to measure the elements in the comet's ice. The scientists involved hope to be able to understand hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and other elements in water and organic components in their pristine form contained by the comet nearly five billion years ago when the solar system was beginning to be formed.

The mission holds a lot of potential: scientists believe that comets hold the answer to the origin of life on our planet. Comet ISON had recently excited the scientists for the same reason, but unfortunately, it didn't survive solar proximity. ISON's death makes Rosetta critical to our understanding of the origin of the planet Earth. Comet 67P may possibly contain information on earliest ingredients of the solar system, so it comes as a unique opportunity for the scientists. However, it all depends on whether Rosetta wakes up in time and lands successfully on the comet. 

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