European probe to reach comet today
After its launch more than 10 years ago, the un-manned Rosetta probe is nearing its mission-goal of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, or "Chury" Wednesday morning. The prestigious Rosetta will be the first spacecraft in history to go into orbit around a comet. It has been a long wait for the Dutch-led European Space Agency (ESA) mission, and a costly one as well. The Rosetta probe has cost €1.3 billion. After traveling 6.4 billion kilometers, the historic mission comes to a (near) end with just another kick from its onboard thrusters. After a seven-minute burn, the probe will come within 100km of the Chury comet, which is traveling at up to 135,000 km/h through space, and comes around every 6.45 years. The comet is so far from Earth that there is a 30-minute lag between the probe's signal and the ESA control center. The scheduled time for the probe to begin its orbit around the comet is just after 11 a.m. Dutch time today. This is a first in global space-history, and a feat that has the mission's scientists in The Netherlands sitting at the edges of their chairs. "It's the first time we have ever done this", said Matt Taylor, a project scientist on Rosetta at ESA. "Even the smallest maneuver can go wrong. Nothing is straightforward in space flight."
After measuring the size of the comet and the strength of its gravitational field, on November 11th, the spacecraft will release a lander, named Philae, that will roam the surface of the comet. The comet's gravitational pull is weak, meaning that Philae has to attach itself with an explosive harpoon. Philae will drill into the comet to see what it is made of. Through the mission, scientists hope to be able to gain more understanding of how the Solar System, including Earth, came about billions of years ago. The mission will allow scientists a first look at a comet, those streaking, blazing objects in the sky that have fascinated civilizations on Earth for millions of years, as it races towards the sun and becomes active. A comet's tail comes from solar radiation which, as it rises, causes the comet to send hundreds of kilos of dust and gas billowing behind it. A comet's tail can grow more than one million kilometers long. Dutch scientist Fred Jansen leads the project. The probe was fist tested at aeronautics center Estec in Noordwijk. Dutch Space, a company in Leiden, constructed the sensitive solar panels on the probe. Rosetta has already been transmitting images of the comet back to controllers. According to The Guardian, these images have made the mission rather tricky for the scientists, as the comet appears to have a strange shape. It appears to be two space rocks stuck together, making it look like a giant rubber duck.
ESA will collect data from the Rosetta mission until the end of last year, but that doesn't mean the probe will be returned to Earth. Rosetta and Chury will remain together until the end of times, while Philae's electronics will slowly die, until it loses grip and falls off the comet.