Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Photo: The European Space Agency via Rosetta)
A 220-pound lander named Philae is now hours away from landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko some 300 million miles (about 480 million kilometers) from Earth in what could only be described as a breathtaking space mission.
The Rosetta comet mission has now entered its most riveting phase of a journey that began over ten years ago during which it traveled hundreds of millions of miles after three slingshots around Earth and one around mass Mars and years of deep slumber.
Both the comet and the Rosetta spacecraft of the European Space Agency (ESA)are traveling at the speed of 34,400 miles per hour as Philae detaches itself from the spacecraft begins its rather precarious landing maneuvers.
Space exploration generally remains a ceaseless marvel for me and within that missions such as the Rosetta comet mission are glorious reminders of the human genius. While the entire Rosetta’s project’s cycle from the conception has been 20 years, it is for the past ten years since its launch on March 2, 2004 that it has gone through a series of highly sophisticated maneuvers to get to where it is now.
The ESA describes the mission so far thus:
“Few things could be more fascinating or demanding in the history of European space travel than the Rosetta comet mission. Launched on 2 March 2004, the spacecraft set off on its 10-year journey to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko . Along the way, Rosetta has been performing a series of complex flight manoeuvres (passing Earth three times and Mars once), soaking up the ‘momentum’ it needed for its long journey. It also inspected asteroids Steins(September 2008) and Lutetia (July 2010) at close quarters, acquiring images while making extensive physical measurements.
The craft was switched to standby mode in July 2011 to complete the arduous journey to the comet. The reason for this was that the spacecraft’s trajectory took it beyond Jupiter’s orbit, a faraway spot almost 800 million kilometres from the Sun, where the solar arrays would have been unable to generate sufficient electricity for important functions.”
The craft was woken up again on January 20 January 2014. Since then it has drawn closer by the minute to the comet.
An artist’s impression of Philae finally on the comet early on Wednesday morning US time.
Comets have been seen by many as the possible source of prebiotic molecules and water. One of the main scientific questions that Philae is expected to examine relates to this very subject. As the ESA describes it, “The questions as to whether the comet’s surface is actually in a kind of ‘original state’ and whether comets harbour prebiotic molecules and water – making it likely that they could have played a role in the origin of life on Earth – are expected to be answered with the help of the Rosetta mission.”
You only have to imagine the scale of engineering and science which have gone into this mission to miss a heart beat or two at the extraordinariness of this accomplishment.