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Posted on February 4th, 2014

Reaching Orbit – Asteroids Revisited for the First Time for the Last Time

Another month, another asteroid update. This time focusing on the Rosetta mission, and no it has nothing to do with teaching comets a foreign language! The Rosetta spacecraft began its journey in March 2004, when it was launched into orbit and it trailed Earth around the Sun. Then it was ping-ponged from Earth to Mars, back to Earth and finally flung past Mars towards the Asteroid Belt. Each trip around a planet served as an accelerator, giving the spacecraft the velocity needed to hurdle past Mars’ gravity field. It then made one more visit back to Earth to plummet into the outer solar system. Far away from the Sun’s energy, Rosetta went into hibernation before meeting up with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, C-G for short, and then awakening to complete its mission.

Rosetta is intended to orbit and observe comet C-G at close range as it transcends into and then out of the inner solar system. Before now, spacecraft have only observed comets while flying by them at very high speeds, limiting observation time. Rosetta will be flying alongside the comet where it will monitor the comet’s surface and drop a lander onto its surface. The vehicle will perform a soft landing, tether itself to the rock, gather information on the comet’s surface and then relay the data back to Earth. The satellite will monitor the comet as it passes near the Sun, using its eleven sensors to collect data on the comet’s coma and tail as it travels from the frigid cold of space through the fiery hot radiation of the Sun. Conditions on the comet will change drastically as it approaches the Sun, so the orbiter will monitor the production rate of carbon monoxide and dioxide as well as water, and catalog the changes as it nears the Sun. It will also provide insight into the surface composition and elements found on the comet, which can shed light on the temperature of the primordial solar system.

The Rosetta mission has been decades in the making and was borne of extensive collaboration between the European Space Agency, its affiliate countries and NASA. It must be a surreal experience for those who worked on the project first-hand to see their hard work and innovation reawaken a decade later. For me, the most amazing element of this mission is that science that was developed pre-2004 is just now waking up in 2014 to put that technology to use. Just imagine how today’s science will be flung into an uncertain future, how cool is that?!

Katie Nelson
Geospatial Ninja
(303) 718-7163

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