On January 20th, the Rosetta spacecraft came to life after a two-and-a-half year nap. Prepare to be amazed by what it does next! Rosetta will be the first spacecraft to orbit a comet and the hitch a ride around the Sun. Allow us to discuss things you need to know about this landmark mission.
In 2004, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched Rosetta Orbiter. At first, the spacecraft stayed relatively close to the Sun. Flying by Earth, Mars and even two asteroids. This helped Rosetta to pick up energy and align itself with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenku (Churyumov-Gerasimenku). Breaching the comet, however, meant traveling out past Jupiter—800 million kilometers away from the heat of the Sun. To conserve energy during its voyage, Rosetta entered a deep space hibernation in June 8, 2011.
By January this year, it returned close enough to use its solar panels. Now that it can power up Rosetta was ready to wake up.
On the morning of January 28th at exactly 10:00 AM. Rosetta's internal alarm clock went off. It fired its thrusters to slow its rotation and oriented solar panels towards the Sun. Then, it look at the surrounding stars to check its position before rotating towards Earth and pointing its antenna at us.
Finally, it fired up the signal saying it was awake. The signal reached the Earth loud and clear.
Now, Rosetta was ready to chase down its target!
Why do we want to visit comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenku? Well, this comet is in just the right place. It's still out in the cold depths of the solar system. But, on its way toward the heat of the Sun.
As it warms up and its ice melts. The comet will spew dust and gas into space creating tails. Then, Rosetta will track this transformation as it occurs.
Comets will give us a glimpse of the solar system's youth. Probably, help seed Earth with water and organic molecules. In up close and personal look. It can help us learn much more about these objects.
However, because it's still millions of kilometers from its destination Rosetta won't entering into orbit until August. As the craft circles it will mapped the surface of the comet in detail.
Previous similar space missions such as Geotto and Stardust have blown and the closest we got was the Deep Impact Space Probe in 2005. But, Deep Impact just shot a hunk of metal at its comet, gathered samples, and then went on its way. The space probe was destroyed into pieces.
Rosetta will stay in orbit for an entire year. So, we'll be able to track how the comet changes as it moves closer to the Sun.
Rosetta will do more than just an orbit. In November, it will release its Philae lander onto the surface. Three spider-like legs will help Philae hit the ground safely and maintain an upright position. Because the gravity of comet is relatively weak. Philae land anchoring itself by sticking a hard pruning on the ground. The lander and its wave of instruments will give us an even better look at the nucleus of comet 67P.