January 20, 2014. 500 million miles from Earth. 09:59:58… 09:59:59… 10:00:00 GMT. After spending two and a half years into deep-space hibernation, Rosetta awakes…
Launched in March 2004 by ESA (European Space Agency), it has since travelled around the Sun five times, picking up energy from Earth and Mars to line itself up with its final destination.
Rosetta is a robotic spacecraft built to perform a detailed study of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Part of the ESA Horizon 2000 cornerstone missions, Rosetta is the first mission designed to orbit and land on a comet.
ESA’s Sleeping Beauty Awakes
As it travelled out towards the orbit of Jupiter, the Rosetta spacecraft was put into deep-space hibernation for the coldest and loneliest leg of its mission. 800 million kilometres from Earth, the time came for Rosetta to wake up and prepare for a most exciting scientific adventure. The spacecraft’s internal alarm clock was set for 10:00 GMT (11:00 CET) on 20th January 2014.
And then came the announcement around 6:18 PM: @ESA_Rosetta is talking!
The first tweet from @ESA_Rosetta: “Hello, world!”. 10:18 AM – 20 Jan 2014. Running smoothly. Woohoo! 😀
Europe’s Comet Chaser
If all goes well, the Rosetta mission will achieve many historic firsts.
- Rosetta will be the first spacecraft to orbit a comet’s nucleus.
- It will be the first spacecraft to fly alongside a comet as it heads towards the inner Solar System.
- Rosetta will be the first spacecraft to examine from close proximity how a frozen comet is transformed by the warmth of the Sun.
- Shortly after arrival at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the Rosetta orbiter will despatch a robotic lander, Philae, for the first controlled touchdown on a comet nucleus.
- The Rosetta lander’s instruments will obtain the first images from a comet’s surface and make the first in situ analysis to find out what it is made of.
- On its way to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta will pass through the main asteroid belt, with the option to be the first European close encounter with one or more of these primitive objects.
- Rosetta will be the first spacecraft ever to fly close to Jupiter’s orbit using solar cells as its main power source.
Rosetta will complete its cruise towards the comet in 2014. It is expected to be rendezvousing with it in August 2014, before putting its Philae lander onto the comet’s surface in November 2014, as comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko begins its journey closer to the Sun.
Scientists will be waiting to compare Rosetta’s results with previous studies by the ESA’s Giotto spacecraft and ground-based observatories. Comets have been shown to contain complex organic molecules – compounds that are rich in carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Intriguingly, these are the very elements which make up nucleic acids and amino acids, the essential ingredients for life as we know it.
Rosetta and Philae may help us to find the answer to this fundamental question:
Did life on Earth begin with the help of comet seeding?
Godspeed, little Rosetta!