“Hello Comet”

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Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and a closeup taken by Rosetta which is now traveling with the comet (Photos: European Space Agency)

I was planning to write about Congress Party vice president Rahul Gandhi’s “storming” into the well of India’s parliament. Then I figured the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission is slightly more important than that. By any measure, Rosetta’s arrival at Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko is an astounding accomplishment in space exploration.

Rosetta, which is an orbiter 2.8 x 2.1 x 2.0 meters in dimensions with two 14 meter long solar panels, has traveled for ten years, during which it looped around the Sun five times and covered a total distance of 6.4 billion kilometers. It is now traveling along with the comet at a distance of 100 kilometers from it. The plans are to go within 30 kilometers of the comet and send a lander.

We know that that space exploration is necessarily generational and requires an enormous amount of patience but just how much of it is underscored by one simple fact about the Rosetta mission. It was first conceived in the late 1970s, approved in 1993 and eventually launched in 2004. We are now more than halfway through 2014 when the orbiter has reached its destination after being in hibernation for a long time to conserve energy and then being awakened through a series of complex maneuvers. As the ESA pointed out it made three gravity-assist flybys of Earth and one of Mars before it was set on course to its rendezvous with the comet.

The comet and the orbiter which are now flying together are currently about 405 million kilometers. They are approaching the inner Solar System at close to 55,000 kilometers an hours. As if all this is not astonishing enough, the ESA has just begun an even more exciting phase of the mission. A lander from the orbiter called Philae is now being prepared to land on one of the five landing sites on the comet. According to the ESA, as of now Philae is expected to land on the comet on November 11 this year. Rosetta is already history’s first spacecraft to meet a comet. With Philae scheduled to land in about three months from now, space scientists would have pulled off a breathtaking combination of materials science, mathematics, engineering, telemetry  and pure persistence. Or, as I said, a little more consequential than someone rushing to the well of parliament.

Comets are of particular interest because they could well have seeded Earth with both water and even building blocks of life. We have never had an opportunity to study one by being right on its surface as it orbits past the Sun. For the next one year or so Rosetta will stay with the comet and closely examine the transformation it goes through as it moves closer to the Sun.

Looking at the two images of the comet shaped like a bulb of ginger which were sent by Rosetta in the last couple of days, one cannot but marvel at the scale of achievement in space exploration.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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