NASA's Space Place
Bright Future for a Comet-Chasing Spacecraft
Alex H. Kasprak
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Over 10 years ago, a spacecraft named Rosetta blasted off on its way to meet up with an icy dust ball. The European Space Agency launched the mission with contributions from selected European countries, and also from NASA. Those who built Rosetta have high hopes for it. If all goes according to plan, a lander attached to Rosetta will gently descend to the surface of the comet for the first time ever.
In fact, the Rosetta mission has already made history. In late August, after its decade-long journey, the spacecraft entered an orbit around a comet for the first time. The comet—Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko—is barreling quickly toward the sun as Rosetta circles around it. This is both a blessing and a curse.
It’s a blessing because we will now have a front-row seat to a pretty awesome show. As this comet gets closer to the sun it will heat up. As it heats up, it will develop the bright coma and stunning tail for which comets are known.
It’s a curse because eventually all that heat will make it impossible for the lander’s instruments to work. It could even break Comet 67P apart. That means there’s a deadline for putting a lander on its surface. The scientists must act quickly.
And act quickly is what they have done! Immediately after arriving at its target, Rosetta made a detailed map of its surface. Not only is it a beautifully detailed look at a mysterious space object, but it is also useful. When Rosetta first launched, scientists had no idea what the surface of Comet 67/P looked like. Now, using this map, scientists were able to pick out a number of potential landing sites to study.
After teams of scientists and engineers discussed and debated all of those options, they picked one first-choice landing site and one back-up site. Everything is on schedule for the landing attempt to be made in mid-November.
Both on the surface and in orbit, Rosetta will help us understand not only what comets look like up close when they approach the sun, but it will also shed light on the formation of our own solar system. These icy comets are the leftovers from the time when our solar system was just forming
Download the game CometQuest by NASA’s Space Place and take control of the Rosetta Mission. Land a lander and collect data while you avoid space hazards! http://tinyurl.com/cometquest.
X marks the spot: Rosetta shot this picture of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimen when it arrived in the comet’s orbit. The marked area is the first choice landing site. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM.