Comet-Chasing Probe Approaches its Target

Space Duck

A daring space mission has gotten even closer to reaching its goal of exploring the surface of a comet.

A probe belonging to the European Space Agency will reach a critical stage in its mission on Wednesday- a prerogative that has spanned ten years and 3.75 million miles. This mission has been one of the most ambitious example of space research by the agency in an attempt to learn more about comets, with the project requiring a lump sum of 1.3 billion euros ($1.76 billion) to achieve funding.

The probe, aptly named Rosetta, has been tailing Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko since its launch back in March of 2004. The journey required four flybys of Mars and Earth, using their gravitational force as a slingshot. It entered a 31-month hibernation to save power, and awoke last January when the time was right. It is estimated that Rosetta will be within 65 miles of the comet come Wednesday, slowly approaching until next November when it will be close enough to lower a 220-pound refrigerator-size rover onto the surface. Philae, the rover, will spend at most six months anchored to the comet running experiments on its chemical and textural composition.

Astrophysicists have long thought comets to be clusters of dust and ice left over from the formations of the planets in the Solar System (instead of the harbingers of doom they have been portrayed as throughout history). In more recent years, the “pan-spermia” theory has introduced the concept of comets as the vessels that brought life to earth. In the early stages of Earth’s formation, comets may have brought water and organic molecules to the planet’s surface when they passed by.

In the time before Rosetta, the ability to study comets have been difficult and rarely attempted. Some exceptions include the American probe Stardust, which brought home dust snatched from a comet’s wake, and Europe’s Giotto when it ventured to within 200 km of a comet’s surface.

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Source: NDTV

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