Tags: rosetta | spacecraft | comet | sun

Rosetta Spacecraft Trails Comet As It Nears Sun

By    |   Friday, 20 Mar 2015 03:00 PM

After 10 years in the dark vastness of outer space chasing Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft is now trailing the comet as it flies toward a fiery close encounter with the sun before heading back out into deep space.

The ESA reports that the spacecraft, packed with scientific instruments to capture all the data it can on the comet's makeup and path, launched in March, 2004 and finally caught up with Comet 67P in August, is beginning a series of close orbits around the massive, duck-shaped ball of ice and dirt and is sending back stunning photography.

On Nov. 12, Rosetta launched a robot lander, Philae, about the size of a washing machine, which achieved a landing on the comet and was to drill into the comet and send back readings of its makeup. However, two harpoons designed to anchor the robot in place failed, the lander lost solar power, disappeared, and is now silent, somewhere on the comet, the BBC reports.

ESA Flight Director Andrea Accomazzo estimated the chances that Philae's solar panels will cause the robot to "reboot" as it nears the sun at about "50-50, but I will be the happiest person in the world if it happens," he told the BBC.

The New York Times noted that the spacecraft had to back off close orbit around the comet because jets of gases and debris spewing from the comet's surface endangered Rosetta, and the spacecraft now is following the comet.

"The aerodynamic effects are now more and more important," Accomazzo told the BBC.

"The jets are getting stronger and stronger. To give you an idea, these gases come out of the comet for a few kilometers and are moving at 800 meters per second.

"We definitely have to take this into account. We are a big spacecraft with 64 square meters of solar panels. We're like a big sail," which easily could be damaged by the comet's debris.

The increase in the jets' activity is causing the comet, which has a day-length of 12.4 hours, to lose speed in its rotation.

"The gas jets coming out of the comet they are acting like thrusters and are slowing down the comet," Accomazzo told the BBC.

Among the discoveries that Rosetta has achieved is finding measurements of molecular nitrogen in the comet, which lends credence to the theory that Earth's nitrogen, and water could have come from comets, Phys.org reports, and provides information about where and in what conditions the comet formed.

"Just as we wanted to learn more about the role of comets in bringing water to Earth, we would also like to place constraints on the delivery of other ingredients, especially those that are needed for the building blocks of life, like nitrogen," Kathrin Altwegg of the University of Bern told Phys.org.

The ESA says the end of Rosetta's mission will come in December, with a planned lifespan of about 12 years, though the mission time may be extended.

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After 10 years in the dark vastness of outer space chasing Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft is now trailing the comet as it flies toward a fiery close encounter with the sun before heading back out into deep space.
rosetta, spacecraft, comet, sun
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2015-00-20
Friday, 20 Mar 2015 03:00 PM
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