Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

'Rosetta' spacecraft's 10-year pursuit of comet ends in success

Close-up detail of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The image was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera and downloaded Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. The image shows the comet’s ‘head’ at the left of the frame, which is casting shadow onto the ‘neck’ and ‘body’ to the right. The image was taken from a distance of 120 km and the image resolution is 2.2 meters per pixel. A mission to land the first space probe on a comet reaches a major milestone when the unmanned Rosetta spacecraft finally catches up with its quarry on Wednesday. It's a hotly anticipated rendezvous: Rosetta flew into space more than a decade ago and had to perform a series of complex maneuvers to gain enough speed to chase down the comet on its orbit around the sun. (AP Photo/ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team ) LGL110

Close-up detail of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The image was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera and downloaded Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. The image shows the comet’s ‘head’ at the left of the frame, which is casting shadow onto the ‘neck’ and ‘body’ to the right. The image was taken from a distance of 120 km and the image resolution is 2.2 meters per pixel. A mission to land the first space probe on a comet reaches a major milestone when the unmanned Rosetta spacecraft finally catches up with its quarry on Wednesday. It's a hotly anticipated rendezvous: Rosetta flew into space more than a decade ago and had to perform a series of complex maneuvers to gain enough speed to chase down the comet on its orbit around the sun. (AP Photo/ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team ) LGL110

DARMSTADT, Germany — Turning what seemed like a science fiction tale into reality, an unmanned probe swung alongside a comet on Wednesday after a 4-billion mile chase through outer space over the course of a decade.

Europe's Rosetta probe will orbit and study the giant lump of dust and ice as it hurtles toward the sun and, if all goes according to plan, drop a lander onto the comet in the coming months.

Rosetta turned up as planned for its rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

The incredible trip, launched on March 2, 2004, marks a milestone in mankind's effort to understand the mysterious 'shooting stars' that periodically flash past Earth, and which have often been viewed with fear and trepidation.

While the moon, Mars and even asteroids have been visited, no spacecraft has yet gotten so close to a comet. Having achieved this feat, Rosetta will go one step further and drop a lander on 67P's icy surface — a maneuver planned for November.

"You can compare what we've done so far to finding a speck of dust in a big city," said Gerhard Schwehm, who was lead scientist on the Rosetta mission until his recent retirement.

That's probably an understatement.

To catch their quarry, scientists at the European Space Agency had to overcome a series of hurdles that included a last-minute change of destination — after a carrier rocket failure delayed launch — and a tense hibernation period of 31 months during which the probe was out of contact with ground stations.

Before Rosetta swung alongside 67P with a final thrust Wednesday, the spacecraft also had to accelerate to 34,000 mph — a speed that required three loops around Earth and one around Mars.

Underlining the singular achievement, ESA's director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain told scientists and spectators at the mission control center in Darmstadt, Germany: "This is your only chance to have a rendezvous with a comet."

Rosetta will now spend several months observing 67P from a safe distance of up to 60 miles. This will give scientists time to find a safe place to land Rosetta's sidekick, Philae.

This maneuver will pose an unprecedented challenge because there will be no second shot. Recent pictures of 67P show that its surface is porous, with steep cliffs and house-sized boulders.

One person involved with Rosetta from the start told the Associated Press that the landing was "mission impossible" with only a slim chance of success. He spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid harming his employer.

Even if the landing fails, Rosetta itself will remain in the comet's orbit until at least the end of 2015, gathering reams of data with its 11 on-board sensors. As 67P gets closer to the sun it will begin to fizz and release the cloud of dust and ice that most people associate with comets.

"We're going to have a ringside seat to see, for the first time, a comet turn into a comet, to develop its tail and explain what for centuries mankind has been puzzled by," said David Southwood, a former president of the Royal Astronomical Society who was involved with the Rosetta mission from the start.

Overall, scientists hope the $1.74 billion mission will help them learn more about the origins of comets, stars, planets and maybe even life on Earth, he said.

Mark McCaughrean, a senior scientific advisor at ESA, predicted plenty of surprises ahead.

"With this comet, every time we see a new image the jaws drop," he said. "Everybody just can't believe how lucky we have been."

On the Web

Rosetta's mission page: rosetta.esa.int.

'Rosetta' spacecraft's 10-year pursuit of comet ends in success 08/07/14 [Last modified: Thursday, August 7, 2014 2:57pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Sign up for our daily News at Noon email newsletter

    News

    The Tampa Bay Times will soon launch a daily newsletter called News at Noon. You can make sure to be among the first to receive it by signing up now.

  2. Tampa Bay child welfare agencies get additional state funding, plan to hire more social workers

    News

    TAMPA — Buoyed by the award of an additional $3 million in state funding, Eckerd Kids plans to hire more social workers to ease the strain on Hillsborough County's overburdened child welfare system.

    The child welfare system in Hillsborough County will get an additional $3 million in funding for the upcoming fiscal  year beginning July 1, according to Eckerd Kids, the agency contracted to run the system by the state.
  3. Bill Nelson knocks Rick Scott over Senate health bill

    Blogs

    Sen. Bill Nelson attacked Gov. Rick Scott, his likely 2018 rival, over today's trip to Washington.

  4. For starters: Rays at Pirates, with Hechavarria active, Robertson sent down

    Blogs

    UPDATE, 3:26: And the Rays indeed have Hechavarria at SS and Beckham at 2B. Also, with no DH Dickerson is in left.

    Rays lineup:
    Smith cf,
    Dickerson lf,
    Longoria 3b,
    Morrison 1b,
    Souza rf,
    Ramos c,
    Beckham 2b,
    Hechavarria ss,
    Cobb p

    The stellar view from the press box at PNC Park.
  5. LaVar Ball appears at WWE event, son LaMelo uses slur

    Blogs

    LOS ANGELES  -- LaVar Ball has brought his Big Baller Brand from the basketball court to the wrestling ring. 
    The outspoken father of NBA Draft No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball showed up with the newly-minted Los Angeles Laker and another son, 15-year-old son LaMelo, for a live segment on Monday's "WWE …

    LaVar Ball took off his shirt during a WWE broadcast.