August 6, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Rosetta and the Stone

A historic comet rendezvous mission begins today after ten years in space.

The Rosetta spacecraft, launched in 2004 by the European Space Agency, after 5 trips around the sun, is poised to orbit its prey: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  The craft will orbit the comet’s nucleus, if all goes well, and then will land a probe named Philae on its surface in November.  Space.com tells about the mission with an infographic.  Interested skywatchers can follow the progress on the ESA’s Rosetta page.

Update: Success!  Rosetta entered orbit successfully on August 6.  First stunning close-ups of the comet have been posted by New Scientist, BBC News and Space.com.

There aren’t too many “space firsts” left in this mature part of the space age.  Although Giotto photographed Comet Halley’s nucleus in 1986, and Deep Impact crashed a probe on a comet in 2005, and Stardust collected comet dust and returned it to Earth in 2006, this will be the first mission to land a probe gently on a comet surface in an attempt to understand comets better.

In 2000, the NEAR spacecraft touched down on asteroid Eros in an unscheduled soft landing at the end of its mission, but communication was lost on contact (see NEAR-Shoemaker page).  The only other solar system bodies on which soft landings have succeeded are the Moon, Venus, Mars and Titan.

Another historic first to anticipate will be the first flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft on July 14 next year.

As we reported 1/13/03 before its launch, the Rosetta orbiter contains a disk inscribed with the first three chapters of Genesis 1 in 1,000 languages — a true Rosetta Stone for the ages.  It’s been a decade-long wait; this should be an important and very interesting mission to watch from now through November.  Space firsts are a good occasion to interest children in science.

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