The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft has spent the last decade on an epic journey from Earth to the deep reaches of space, in a bid to hunt down and study a comet in unprecedented detail. The craft has made a series of ten thruster firings over the past few months to slow it down to just 2 miles per hour relative to the speed of its target, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at a distance of just 60 miles.
The 2.5 mile wide comet is already having its picture taken by Rosetta, showing its irregular shape, which suggests it’s actually two icy bodies that have at some time, no doubt billions of years ago, come together to form a single rock.
— ESA Rosetta Mission (@ESA_Rosetta) August 4, 2014
“The key thing is we’re rendezvousing and escorting right in alongside the comet for an extended period, for over a year,” said Matthew Taylor, the mission’s project scientist.
At 334 million miles from the sun and travelling at 34,400 miles per hour relative to the earth this is no easy mission and the team will be tracking and studying the comet for well over a year to learn as much as they can about it. The comet is streaming off vapour at a rate of about two cups a second right now, but as it accelerates towards the sun this is expected to become hundreds of pounds of a vapour a second, forming the long tail that comets are known for.
Rosetta is also carrying a small 64-pound lander known as Philae, in November the team will launch the lander towards the comet, where it will secure its self using a harpoon to study the rock up close, and becoming the first time a soft landing has been achieved on a comet… if everything goes to plan of course.
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Image courtesy of NYT.