Comet-chasing probe ‘wakes’ for final mission

Touchdown: An artist’s impression of Rosetta’s lander on the comet’s surface © ESA

The Rosetta space probe came back online yesterday after a long hibernation. It will now try to deploy a lander onto a comet hurtling at extreme, unimaginable speeds towards the Sun.

Millions of miles from Earth an extraordinary cosmic dance is about to begin. The dancer is a space probe called Rosetta and her creators at the European Space Agency (ESA) are hoping she will make history.

She has been waiting a long time for this moment. Ten years ago, Rosetta launched herself off from a rocket pad in French Guiana. The first five years of her journey were spent in a series of huge interplanetary loops. She swung from Earth all the way to Mars, skimming the surface so closely that her audience of watching astronomers thought she might meet an early end, smashed to fragments among the barren rocks of the Red Planet.

Two years later she was passing by the Earth again, this time at breakneck speed. Rosetta has two great solar wings that suck in energy from the Sun to power her engines, her sensors and her computerised brain. Propelled by the light of our star, like a ship under a fair wind, Rosetta steered her course out towards the further reaches of the Solar System.

As she sailed further from the Sun, the light that was keeping her alive began to weaken. She had left the inner Solar System, where the planets are small and rocky like our own, and moved into the territory of the gas giants: huge planets like Neptune and Jupiter, hundreds of times bigger and heavier than Earth. Here, in the darkness, Rosetta shut her systems down and entered hibernation, waiting for her dance partner to pass by.

Yesterday, after a three year wait, the moment finally arrived. Cloaked in dust and ice, the comet known as 67P is hurtling towards the rendezvous, and Rosetta is firing her systems back up, ready for action.

Now begins Rosetta’s final waltz. Over the coming year she will make use of her engines with incredible precision, bringing herself into orbit around the plunging comet.

Then the hardest part begins. Rosetta will release a small lander from beneath her metal hull which will glide gently towards the comet’s surface. There, it will fire twin harpoons into the primaeval rock, piercing a celestial body that has been untouched since the very birth of the Solar System. Machine and comet will be linked, and Rosetta’s mission will be complete.

Dance of death

Spinning round each other, while travelling at hundreds of kilometres per second, comet and probe will fall together towards the Sun. There, in the glare of the star’s burning heat, Rosetta and the lander will probably disintegrate. What a perfect metaphor for space exploration, say critics: a billion euros worth of science equipment gone up in smoke.

But Rosetta’s fans think the opposite. They see her dance of death as a symbol of the wonders that the human spirit can achieve.

You Decide

  1. It cost around one billion euros to send Rosetta into space. Was it worth it?
  2. What would you rather understand: the origins of life, or the origins of the Solar System?

Activities

  1. Alone or in groups, sketch out a design for your own space probe. It can be designed to land on comets, or for any other mission of your choice.
  2. Write an imaginative dialogue between Rosetta and Comet 67P.

Some People Say...

“Rosetta is more beautiful than any painting, poem or symphony.”

What do you think?

Q & A

A billion euros for a dancing space probe? What about solving some more ‘earthly’ problems!
It’s a fair criticism, but scientific exploration can deliver huge benefits to humanity in the long term.
I’m all in favour of curing diseases and things like that, but why keep shooting things off into space?
The hope is that data from this comet will help us understand the origins of the Solar System – perhaps even the origins of life itself.
I still don’t see the point.
Some of the most useful discoveries in science started off ‘pointless’. When the laser was first invented, scientists just thought it was a cool use of quantum mechanics. Now lasers do everything from reading CDs to shooting down drones.

Word Watch

Rosetta
The Rosetta space probe was named after the Rosetta Stone, an ancient rock which held the key to understanding the mysterious ancient egyptian letters known as hieroglyphs.
European Space Agency
The ESA is the European equivalent to the much more famous NASA, which conducts space exploration for the United States. The Rosetta mission is the most ambitious feat the ESA has ever attempted.
Mars
The planet Mars was named after the ancient roman god of war. The god was associated with the planet because of its red colour, which can be seen from Earth. The red colour comes from the huge quantity of iron oxide that coats the planet’s surface. To put it another way: Mars is rusty.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.