Rosetta: First spacecraft placed into orbit around a comet

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) spacecraft ‘Rosetta’ became the first spacecraft to intercept and go into orbit around a comet. It is now in position to help researchers to begin with their investigations into how the Solar System came into being.

ESA scientists brought Rosetta to within 100km of the comet – a 3km by 5km rock called 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko – and put it in a stable orbit by reducing its speed with its thrusters. To reach that point so far from the earth the spacecraft took around 10 years. Comets are considered to be primitive building blocks of the Solar System, and relics of the formation of the planets. It also believed that they provided Earth with both water and other essential ingredients which were necessary for triggering the evolution of life.

Rosetta and 67P

67P was first discovered in 1969 by Soviet astronomers Ivanovych Churyumov and Svetlana Ivanova Gerasimenko.

Scientists hope that Rosetta will unravel the secrets of this early history. The spacecraft has been named after the Rosetta Stone, the discovery of which in 1799 provided the key to translating Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Demotic script into Ancient Greek (and thus any other language).

It blasted off from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, in March 2004, for a long journey involving loops around the Sun as it aimed to get onto the same orbit as 67P.

Rosetta has traversed over 6bn km, passing by Earth three times, Mars once, and flew by two asteroids, using the gravitational pull of those bodies to change velocity and catch up with 67P.

The mission has some resemblance with Japan’s 2005 Hayabusa mission, which landed on an asteroid named Itokawa. Its task was to lift out material from the asteroid’s surface, and return it to Earth for study – those samples arrived in 2010, but its capture mechanism malfunctioned. It is still uncertain if the capsule could successfully collect the asteroid rock fragments.


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