Comet-chaser nears prey after crossing billions of miles

Aug 03, 2014 by Veronique Martinache
This artist's impression shows the Rosetta orbiter at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The image is not to scale. Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab

After a decade-long quest spanning six billion kilometres (3.75 billion miles), a European probe will come face to face Wednesday with a comet, one of the Solar System's enigmatic wanderers.

The moment will mark a key phase of the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the European Space Agency (ESA)—a 1.3 billion euro ($1.76 billion) bid to get to know these timeless space rovers.

More than 400 million km from where it was launched in March 2004, the spacecraft Rosetta will finally meet up with its prey, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

To get there, Rosetta has had to make four flybys of Mars and Earth, using their gravitational force as a slingshot to build up speed, and then entering a 31-month hibernation as light from the distant Sun became too weak for its solar panels.

It was awakened in January.

After braking manoeuvres, the three-tonne craft should on Wednesday be about 100 km from the comet—a navigational feat that, if all goes well, will be followed by glittering scientific rewards.

"It's taken more than 10 years to get here," said Sylvain Lodiot, spacecraft operations manager.

"Now we have to learn how to dock with the comet, and stay with it for the months ahead."

Blazing across the sky as they loop around the Sun, comets have long been considered portents of wonderful or terrible events—the birth and death of kings, bountiful harvests or famines, floods or earthquakes.

Astrophysicists, though, see them rather differently.

Comets, they believe, are clusters of the oldest dust and ice in the Solar System—the rubble left from the formation of the planets 4.6 billion years ago.

These so-called dirty snowballs could be the key to understanding how the planets coalesced after the Sun flared into life, say some.

Indeed, one theory—the "pan-spermia" hypothesis—is that comets, by bombarding the fledgling Earth, helped kickstart life here by bringing water and organic molecules.

Until now, though, explorations of comets have been rare and mainly entailed flybys by probes on unrelated missions snatching pictures from thousands of kilometres away.

Exceptions were the US probe Stardust, which brought home dust snatched from a comet's wake, while Europe's Giotto ventured to within 200 km of a comet's surface.

On November 11, the plan is for Rosetta to inch to within a few kilometres of the comet to send down a 100-kilogramme (220-pound) refrigerator-sized robot laboratory, Philae.

Anchored to the surface, Philae will carry out experiments in cometary chemistry and texture for up to six months. After the lander expires, Rosetta will accompany "C-G" as it passes around the Sun and heads out towards the orbit of Jupiter.

'Duck' in space

Before November's landing, though, Rosetta's operators have a mountain of work to do.

The first few weeks will be a get-to-know-you exercise, as the spacecraft gingerly carries out elongated loops around the comet, scanning its surface.

The probe will have to avoid ice crystals and dust particles that are stripped from the comet's outer layers as it nears the Sun—a trail that is reflected in solar rays as its wake.

And it will have to look for a suitable for Philae.

Last month, as Rosetta came ever closer to the comet, its cameras revealed that the target body, far from being shaped like a potato as many had expected, rather resembled a duck—two lobes, one big and the other small, connected by a "neck".

"That was a bit of a surprise," said Philippe Lamy of the Astrophysics Laboratory of Marseille, southern France.

"Several theories have already been aired to explain this shape, but the likeliest in my book is that it came from two bodies which fused while the Solar System was being formed."

The unexpected shape will limit the choice of a landing site, Lamy said. "You can reasonably argue that it will impose additional constraints."

Comets: Frozen wanderers

- Comets are bodies of ancient ice and dust that orbit the Sun and are believed to be almost pristine material left over from the Solar System's formation some 4.6 billion years ago. One theory is that they hold complex carbon molecules that helped seed life on an infant Earth.

- As a comet nears the Sun, some of the ice is melted and transformed into gusts of gas, the bright "coma" around its head. The gassy wake, and dust loosened by the melting ice, creates a spectacular tail that is reflected in the Sun's rays and may stretch across millions of kilometres (miles) in space. The word for comet comes from "stella cometa," Latin for "long-haired star".

- Like solar eclipses, comets have been associated with great events of history, good and bad. The birth of Jesus and Napoleon, the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD that destroyed Pompeii, and the Great Plague of 1665 that ravaged London have been linked to comets. "The celestial phenomena called comets (excite) wars, heated and turbulent dispositions in the atmosphere, and in the constitutions of men, with all their evil consequences," warned the first-century Egyptian astronomer and astrologer Ptolemy.

- Approximately 2,000 comets have been observed and recorded over the past 2,500 years. They follow elliptical orbits, with a return taking anything from a few years to as many as 40,000 years. Some scientists estimate there could be billions of comets, only a tiny fraction of which have ever been seen.

- The most famous comet is named after British astronomer Edmond Halley, who was the first to prove that comets orbit the Sun and return regularly. He showed that a comet of 1682, now called Halley's Comet, was identical with two that had appeared in 1607 and 1531, and he successfully predicted the comet's next return, which occurred in 1758, 16 years after his death. Halley's Comet last swung by Earth in 1986.

- Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the target for Europe's Rosetta space probe, orbits the Sun once every 6.6 years. In July, images from the spacecraft as it neared the comet showed the target to be shaped rather like a duck, with a large body and a head connected by a neck. The comet is named after two Soviet astronomers, Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, who first identified it, separately, in 1969.

- The head of a comet can be bigger than a planet, but most are just a few cubic kilometres (miles) in size. For all its celestial splendour, Halley's Comet is only about 15 kilometres long by four kilometers wide (nine by 2.5 miles). Churyumov-Gerasimenko is believed to measure about four kms across.

- Astronomers once believed that comets were born in interstellar space, but the consensus now is that they are created at two locations on the fringes of the Solar System. So-called long-period comets—ones which take at least 200 years to return—are believed to originate in the Oort Cloud, an accumulation of gas and debris beyond the orbit of Pluto. Short-period comets like Churyumov-Gerasimenko are believed to come from a ring of debris beyond Neptune's orbit called the Kuiper Belt.

- Comets pose a risk, albeit a very small one, to life on Earth. A collision by a comet or large asteroid 65 million years ago inflicted climate change that probably ended the reign of the dinosaurs. In 1992, the Shoemaker-Levy 9 was torn into 21 large fragments as it entered Jupiter's gravitational field. In July 1994, the fragments smashed into Jupiter at speeds of about 210,000 kph (130,000 mph), releasing energy that triggered fireballs larger than the Earth.

Explore further: Distant comet 'sweats' two glasses of water per second

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Comet-chasing probe closes in on target

Jul 02, 2014

A comet-chasing spacecraft on a mission to land on a fizzing ball of ice and dust later this year has begun a crucial slow-down maneuver to avoid flying past its target.

Comet-probing robot to wake from hibernation

Mar 26, 2014

A fridge-sized robot lab hurtling through the Solar System aboard a European probe is about to wake from hibernation and prepare for the first-ever landing by a spacecraft on a comet.

Comet-chasing space probe makes surprise discovery

Jul 17, 2014

A space probe aiming to become the first to land on a comet has taken images that appear to show its target could actually be two separate lumps of rock and ice, scientists said Thursday.

Rosetta measures comet's temperature

Aug 01, 2014

(Phys.org) —ESA's Rosetta spacecraft has made its first temperature measurements of its target comet, finding that it is too hot to be covered in ice and must instead have a dark, dusty crust.

Recommended for you

The top 101 astronomical events to watch for in 2015

Dec 24, 2014

Now in its seventh year of compilation and the second year running on Universe Today, we're proud to feature our list of astronomical happenings for the coming year. Print it, bookmark it, hang it on your ...

NASA image: Frosty slopes on Mars

Dec 24, 2014

This image of an area on the surface of Mars, approximately 1.5 by 3 kilometers in size, shows frosted gullies on a south-facing slope within a crater.

Opportunity rover struggles with flash memory problems

Dec 24, 2014

NASA's Opportunity Mars rover, also known as "Oppy", is continuing its traverse southward on the western rim of Endeavour Crater despite computer resets and "amnesia" that have occurred after reformatting ...

User comments : 8

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

cantdrive85
1 / 5 (9) Aug 03, 2014
as Rosetta came ever closer to the comet, its cameras revealed that the target body, far from being shaped like a potato as many had expected, rather resembled a duck—two lobes, one big and the other small, connected by a "neck".
"That was a bit of a surprise," said Philippe Lamy of the Astrophysics Laboratory of Marseille, southern France.

It's only a "surprise" because they ignore laboratory based science in favor of theories which have already been falsified.

On the other hand, CJ Ransom was able to recreate these "snowman" objects in the lab using electric discharge;

http://ieeexplore...D4287076

And Wal Thornhill's predictions on comets has been highly successful unlike standard theorists...

http://www.thunde...ions.htm
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (8) Aug 03, 2014
While cantdrive85 will be swimming in is ignorance pool, everybody else is invited to Rosetta's rendez-vous with Churyomov-Gerasimenko live webcast event on Wednesday starting at 7:30 UTC: http://blogs.esa....dezvous/ Meanwhile here is the latest picture of the comet: http://blogs.esa....1000-km/
DeliriousNeuron
1 / 5 (4) Aug 04, 2014
q]While cantdrive85 will be swimming in is ignorance pool, everybody else is invited to Rosetta's rendez-vous with Churyomov-Gerasimenko live webcast event on Wednesday starting at 7:30 UTC: http://blogs.esa....dezvous/
Techno....have you actually read Wal's comet predictions? Obviously not.
Doug_Huffman
5 / 5 (2) Aug 04, 2014
Bwahahaha! Believe nothing read or heard without verifying it oneself unless it Weltanschauung congruent.
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (3) Aug 04, 2014
Techno....have you actually read Wal's comet predictions? Obviously not.
Bwahahaha! Believe nothing read or heard without verifying it oneself unless it Weltanschauung congruent.
On this, M. Huffman, we can agree, and my worldview do not include esoterism nor mythology.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (4) Aug 05, 2014
Techno....have you actually read Wal's comet predictions? Obviously not.
Bwahahaha! Believe nothing read or heard without verifying it oneself unless it Weltanschauung congruent.
On this, M. Huffman, we can agree, and my worldview do not include esoterism nor mythology.

From a follower of Big Bang Mythology, which is in fact the definition of esoterism with all of it's missing 96% of DM and DE...
As a matter of fact, the answer to the missing Universe is right there! (DM and DE), D's cancel and your left with EM.
TechnoCreed
5 / 5 (4) Aug 05, 2014
From a follower of Big Bang Mythology, which is in fact the definition of esoterism with all of it's missing 96% of DM and DE...
Mathematics is the only way known to make true statements. When there is a correlation between a mathematical structure and an observed phenomenon and that this mathematical structure makes corresponding predictions about future observation, than it becomes an acceptable model of reality; but no scientific theory pretends to be an absolute truth. That is the pragmatism of the scientific method that the EU and other fringe theories proponent fail to understand, human reasoning is limited and will easily see what it is trained to see: e.g. some pictures of phenomenon seemingly driven by an electromagnetic field or a human face carved on the surface of mars.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (2) Aug 06, 2014
Mathematics is the only way known to make true statements.

Only when the equations are not fundamentally flawed, such as GR.
"...magnificent mathematical garb which fascinates, dazzles and makes people blind to the underlying errors. The theory is like a beggar clothed in purple whom ignorant people take for a king ... its exponents are brilliant men but they are metaphysicists, not scientists..." New York Times, July 11, 1935, p23, c8 Nikola Tesla

http://www.sjcrot...er-3.pdf

Otherwise, it's GIGO.

than it becomes an acceptable model of reality

Standard theorists know very little about reality without a foundation of experiment.
"Today's scientists have substituted mathematics for experiments, and they wander off through equation after equation, and eventually build a structure which has no relation to reality." Nikola Tesla

no scientific theory pretends to be an absolute truth.

Yet you scoff at those who suggest the ST incorrect?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.