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by Larry

November, 2014

The Rosetta Mission

Could life on Earth come from outer space? One of the most exciting, out of this world things going on in research lately is the European Union's Rosetta Mission, rocketing to a comet, this month successfully landing a probe on its surface, and getting back potentially major results. The Rosetta spacecraft and its bathtub-sized probe, the Philae lander, have indeed been making history: the first ever orbital rendezvous with a comet (starting on 8/6/14), the first landing on one (last week, on 11/14/14), and now, with findings announced today (11/20/14), the first confirmation that carbon and hydrogen molecules, organic chemical constituents of carbon-based life, may have been brought to Earth in the distant past by comets.

Composite of 4 Rosetta images of Comet 67P on 9-19-14 from about 28 kilometers (roughly 15 miles) from the center of the comet (Wikipedia)
They have, in any case, been found to exist on this comet, 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It, like the countless other mountain-sized chunks of ice and rock in our solar system, are believed to have been around since about 4.6 billion years ago, before the time of the Earth's accumulation of water and matter from comets and asteroids that would regularly have been bombarding our early sphere.

The Rosetta Mission began over ten years ago, on 3/2/04, and traveled over 6.4 billion kilometers (roughly 3.4 billion miles) to catch Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, along the way also making close encounters with a couple asteroids, 2867 Steins and 21 Lutetia, photographs of which were beamed earthward.

The Philae lander mission is over for the time being, the craft having functioned, taken pictures, and done research for about 64 hours on the comet surface before losing battery power. Though it has solar panels for recharging, they could not be correctly deployed due to the location and angle of the lander once it had achieved its final touchdown. As the comet continues its orbit and gets closer to the sun, however, it is hoped that more light will be able to reach the panels so that battery power may be restored, further experiments be conducted from right on the surface, and key info be relayed back to those collecting and monitoring it at the European Space Agency (ESA).

Many pictures and much other data have already been obtained from the Rosetta scientific effort. Meanwhile, the overall mission is far from over. Rosetta is being maneuvered, realigned in its orbit to be cautiously a bit farther from the comet. As Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko gets closer to the sun, it is likely to begin sending jets of gas and ice or rock debris into space, much of it forming a visible tail out behind (away from the sun). From the safer orbital distance, perhaps about 30 kilometers (approximately 16 miles) above the comet surface, Rosetta can continue to take photographs and experimental measurements, sending the results back to ESA scientists.

Via both the Rosetta Mission and its Philae lander, ESA researchers hope to:

  • engage in a prolonged comet investigation at close quarters

  • gather about a year's worth of data on the comet, covering several months each of changes that occur on approach to and retreat from the sun

  • construct realistic hypotheses about the beginning of the solar system

  • gain in understanding of how the Earth acquired its present composition

  • discover more about the origins of life on this planet

If interested in the many cool developments of the Rosetta Mission, one can follow along and get abundant background info, plus see great photo images, at the ESA site: Rosetta.

Readers may also enjoy watching a special PBS video on the Rosetta Mission: To Catch a Comet, which premiered on 11/19/14.

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