If all goes according to the European Space Agency plan, then the one billion Euro Rosetta space probe, launched over a decade ago, will, with some gentle persuasion from onboard thrusters, in a 7 minute-long burn get to within one hundred kilometres of the comet is has been chasing round the solar system.
This oddly shaped body is comet – Chury the nickname – is in fact 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and is as big as a mountain. Rosetta is first set to be put into an odd triangular orbit around this gigantic space rock, the first time in space history that this feat has been achieved. The frustration for project boffins will lie in that this body is so distant from us that they have to wait a full 30 minutes before receiving any returning signal telling them that the manoeuvre has worked.
Not that this moment, in which the comet has finally been chased down is the end of the story. Far from it in fact, as on November 11th this year, it is planned to drop a lander – Philae – on to the surface, though gravity on the comet is almost non-existant, so the lander must attach itself with an explosive harpoon. Once in place, Philae will, for the first time ever, allow astronomers to closely observe a cometary body as it speeds toward the sun at 135,00kph.
With the expected rise in solar radiation rises, the boffins anticipate the development of a spectacular, long tail composed of dust and gas. Not that the landing is a simple affair, as Chury looks something like a rubber duck – two different size, enormous rocks apparently stuck together. That is why the orbit over a few months is necessary, to fully map not just the terrain, but also the shape and strength of its gravitational field, all of which information will be of vital importance.
Once this phase is complete, , Rosetta will close to within 30km of the surface, awaiting instructions from earth on the optimum site for a landing, bearing in mind that it is vital for the scientists to maintain the best communications with the orbiter, alongside maximising sunlight to Philae, to maintain the viability of the lander in the long term. Should the landing succeed, Philae lands will relay measurements back to the mother ship for onward transmission to earth-bound controllers.
It is not expected that the craft will survive the close encounter with the sun as Chury goes around the star, but the information gleaned from the them over the period before the comet gets there should prove invaluable for all astronomers, and give a much clearer understanding of what comets are all about.
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