After nearly three years of deep space hibernation, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft quietly emitted a radio signal as it edged closer to its target, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Rosetta was launched all the way back in March of 2004, and has since traveled an incredible 500 million miles from the sun during its long journey (it also orbited Jupiter, flew past Earth three times, Mars once, and several asteroids). Next up for Rosetta is to land a probe on the comet later this year so scientists can begin gathering data on our solar system’s earliest years—and what Earth looked like when the solar system was born.
Rosetta is actually part of many firsts: the first time a spacecraft has orbited a comet rather than simply flying by; the first time a probe has landed on a comet’s nucleus; and the first mission to rely solely on solar cells for power generation, which is why it hibernated for 957 days. If successful, scientists believe they’ll get the opportunity to look at what’s being considered an “astronomical time capsule,” and potentially unveil clues as to what our solar system looked like when it was born.
“Since comets are so primitive, they can give scientists a chance to understand how the solar system formed, where it came from,” said Andrea Accomazzo, Rosetta spacecraft operations manager.
Once Rosetta lands a probe, called Philae, onto Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the probe will then drill down into the nucleus’ southern hemisphere, which scientists say has been eroded and therefore will be easy to drill into. Not only that, but scientists say the comet’s southern location has been chosen because it’s protected from extreme temperature variations, offering a much safer environment to touch down.
If/when Philae does successfully land, it’ll beam images back to Earth right from the comet’s surface—another first—and begin obtaining samples to analyze. Scientists expect Rosetta to catch up with the comet and land its probe by November of this year, and gather data on the surface until the end of 2015.