General Science

Everything You Need to Know About the Rosetta Mission

posted: 09/26/16
by: Mary Beth McAndrews

For centuries, comets have both inspired and puzzled our planet. As they blaze across our skies, scientists look up and observe them without much information about these celestial objects. For example, some scientists believe that may have formed around 4.6 billion years ago, the same time as the Gas Giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune). Others think they are much older than that. With all this uncertainty, it was time to get answers. How? With a mission lead by the spacecraft, Rosetta, whose goal was to collect as much data as possible about Comet 67P. With the mission ending this month, here's everything you need to know so far about Rosetta and Comet 67P.

What Exactly Is Rosetta?

According to Rosetta's official website, "Rosetta is a spacecraft on a ten-year mission to catch the comet 67P... and answer some of our questions about comets." It was named after the Rosetta stone and carries a probe, named Philae, which it deposited on the comet's surface. Since 2004, Rosetta has been speeding through our solar system, trying to catch up with Comet 67P, traveling a total of about 4 billion miles. In 2014, Rosetta caught up with the comet and they are now only 62 miles apart! Now that Rosetta is with its comet partner, these are the goals it set to achieve:

  • To be the first to soft land a robot (Philae) on a comet
  • To be the first to accompany a comet as it enters our inner solar system
  • To collect and transmit data about the composition of comet 67P
  • To understand how comets were formed and what that can tell us about the Universe

Why This Comet?

This is a comet-chasing mission, after all! But with lots of comets in our solar system, why 67P? There were several considerations to be made when choosing Rosetta's comet according to the European Space Agency (ESA). First, the comet needed to be observed making several orbits around our sun. The comet also needed to follow orbital paths near the ecliptic plane. Lastly, the comet's flight into our inner solar system had to align with Rosetta's mission timeline. While Comet 67P fulfilled these requirements, it was actually the second choice behind Comet 46P.

Tell Me More About Comet 67P.

Comet 67P was first observed in 1969 by Klim Churyumov and Svetland Gerasimenko. It's a short period comet, which means its orbit takes less than 20 years. It also has a low orbital inclination. Since its orbit is controlled by Jupiter's gravity, comet 67P is part of the Jupiter Family comets. It is also classified as a dusty comet.

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Rosetta 101

What Have We Learned From This Mission So Far?

The Rosetta mission has been very successful, making several ground-breaking discoveries! First, Rosetta was able to successfully land Philae on the comet's surface, which lead to collection and transmission of valuable data. With Philae, scientists were finally able to learn more about the surface and composition of comets. For instance, scientists now know that comet 67P, while having a much harder surface than expected, is fluffy under the hard crust. It's composed of loosely-packed ice and dust grains! Rosetta was also able to map the entire surface of the comet's nucleus.

More importantly, it was discovered that the comet contained complex molecules that could be the building blocks of life. Rosetta also discovered many different molecules both on the comet and in its atmosphere, including 16 different organics, four of which had never been observed on comets before. Scientists were also surprised to see so much oxygen in Comet 67P's atmosphere. They originally had expected it to react with other atoms. This discovery could tell us a lot about the history of the solar system.

There is still more information to come as the mission comes to an end. This week, Rosetta will accompany the comet as it enters our inner solar system and observe its changes as it approaches the Sun. As Rosetta follows Comet 67P, it will crash onto its surface, delivering hi-res photography in the minutes leading up to its death.

Learn more about Rosetta on Death on a Comet: The Rosetta Mission airing on Friday, September 30 at 10/9c on Science Channe
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