News / Science & Technology

Rosetta Probe Meets Comet After Decade-Long Chase

Artist view of the Rosetta spacecraft. Rosetta’s lander, Philae, is attached and is shown in blue (© ESA/J. Huart)
Artist view of the Rosetta spacecraft. Rosetta’s lander, Philae, is attached and is shown in blue (© ESA/J. Huart)
VOA News

It's a proud moment for the Paris-based European Space Agency (ESA).

After a decade-long six-billion-kilometer chase, its Rosetta orbiter made history Wednesday, finally catching up with Comet 67P halfway between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars.

The ESA's $1.7 billion probe is the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet.

After entering orbit 100 kilometers above the surface of the 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko comet early Wednesday morning, at a distance of more than 400 million kilometers from Earth, images soon emerged that showed the vessel heading toward a massive rock spinning in the starry dark.

Rosetta will escort Comet 67P for the next year and observe it as it heads towards the sun. The highlight of the mission will come in November, when Rosetta will release a small probe that will attempt to land on Comet 67P — the first ever spacecraft to accomplish such a feat.

For recently retired mission manager Gerhard Schwem — reached by phone from ESA's operations center in Germany — Rosetta's rendezvous on Wednesday is not only a first in space history, but a career milestone.

"For me it's a great day," he said. "I've been working on this cometary cornerstone, as it’s called in the agency, since '85. It's the span my professional career ... so it's quite great that I started with something that's now basically accomplished."

For Dr. Stephan Ulamec, Rosetta Project Manager, the landmark achievement, for all of its technological sophistication, is about addressing very basic questions.

"The challenge is that we know almost nothing about the comet, and we knew even less when we built the probe," he said. "We didn't know how the surface [of the comet] looks like, whether it is soft or hard like ice. The day-night cycle is fairly known. But until recently we didn't even know what the comet looks like, what shape it has.

"And that is the big difference to missions where we land on the moon or on Mars, where we have a pretty good notion of the body we intend to land on," he added.

Scientists believe comets contain the origins of life on Earth — the Rosetta probe is named after the stone that helped unlock the hieroglyphic language of the ancient Egyptians — delivering water and other essential components as they slammed into the planet's surface.

According to Schwem, the project's ultimate goal is to dig back in time — a sort of "space archeology" — to the very origins of the Solar System.

"Comets are not only fascinating objects ... when it's bright enough and you see the tail in the night sky, but comets for us are very, very important," Schwem said. "They can contain the material that has been preserved, like in a deep freeze, since the planets and sun formed 4.6 billion years ago."

With the probe now orbiting around 67P, Rosetta's scientists will begin mapping the comet's surface with a range of instruments. They'll also begin studying the composition of gas emitting from its surface as the comet draws closer to the sun. If Rosetta's small lander successfully touches down this fall, tools aboard the 220-pound landing unit will analyze material below the comet's surface along with its internal temperature fluctuations as it hurtles through space.

Although the Rosetta mission is officially expected to wrap up by the end of 2015, Schwem says the probe's 31-month hibernation, which ESA technicians concluded in January, conserved enough energy to allow the craft to produce new information and updates into 2016.

Rosetta has traveled over six billion kilometers since blasting off from earth in March 2004. It made a series of fly-bys of Mars and Earth so it could pick up speed and positioned itself into the same orbital path as Comet 67P.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, also contributed experts and instruments to Europe's Rosetta mission.

VOA correspondent Lisa Bryant contributed reporting from Paris.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

Alaskans experiencing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more frequent and extensive wildfires, deteriorating glaciers, and swift shoreline erosion More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Cranksy from: USA
August 07, 2014 1:32 PM
Could the science and technology used to make the Rosetta project a success so far be used to prevent a collision between the Earth and a disastrously large extraterrestrial object?

by: Beallthere from: Hawaii
August 07, 2014 3:36 AM
Please capitalize Sun, please. And while you're at it, capitalize Earth, Moon, the days of the week and the months of the year also.
..Basically, if there's just 1 of something, it gets its own name. Is there just 1 Sun ?
..YES, SO CAPITALIZE IT !!!!!
..You would never think of writing Venus in all lowercase, Mars, Jupiter or even the no-longer-a-planet Pluto, so please, show some respect and capitalize these things. Thanks.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs