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Comet-chasing probe Rosetta wakes up

© ESA

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2014-01-20

After almost three years of deep-space hibernation, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft “woke up” on Monday in preparation for its rendezvous with a comet in one of the most ambitious missions ever undertaken by European scientists.

Rosetta has travelled to a point located around 675 million kilometres from the sun since it was launched by ESA in March 2004, and for months has been quietly closing in on its final destination: Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Most of the spacecraft’s instruments were turned off to save power during its nearly 10-year journey.

But at around 10am GMT on Monday, Rosetta’s systems slowly came back to life as an internal alarm clock designed to “wake up” the cosmos-roaming machine kicked into action.

Scientists gathered at ESA’s control room in Darmstadt, Germany, waited anxiously to hear the spacecraft’s all-clear message, “Hello World!” It finally arrived shortly after 6pm GMT.

The Rosetta mission is now due to spend months extensively mapping the comet’s surface. In November it will attempt an unprecedented landing on a speeding comet. A comet is made up of ice and dust; when close to the sun, warmth makes it release a gas that becomes its visible “tail”.

If all goes to plan, the spacecraft will dispatch its lander, Philae, for a close-up study of the comet nucleus. Philae is due to take pictures of the approximately 4km-wide comet and will eventually drill into its surface.

Searching for origins of life

Scientists hope to get a clearer idea of how the solar system was formed billions of years ago.

“Comets are like time capsules, remnants from the birth of the solar system,” Professor Mark McCaughrean, a senior ESA scientist, told a press conference in Darmstadt in December. “[The Rosetta mission] should offer great clues to the origin not only of the solar system but potentially even life.”

Scientists say comets probably brought much of the water to our planet and could even have provided the complex organic molecules that may have played a central role in the evolution of life on earth.

The name of the mission was inspired by the Rosetta Stone discovered in Egypt, which was crucial in deciphering ancient hieroglyphics.

Space scientists hope the Rosetta spacecraft, like the archeological treasure that helped historians understand much of the ancient world, will pave the way for a new understanding of the universe’s past.


Artist’s impression of the Rosetta orbiter deploying the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. © ESA - C. Carreau/ATG medialab

Date created : 2014-01-19

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