Rosetta — Man’s most daring space odyssey
The tryst with 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
It has been a bewildering long journey for a man-made spacecraft. After a long voyage of 6.4 billion kilometers lasting nearly ten years, the technological marvel Rosetta designed and fabricated by the European Space Agency (ESA) has met its mission objective. It made its rendezvous with the elusive comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Rosetta was lofted to space in March 2004. After a long nerve-racking wait, and mind-bogglingly complex maneuvers by its earth-based controllers, Rosetta made space history on August 6, 2014. This feat marks a remarkable milestone in human endeavors to space. Rosetta becomes, the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet. In mapping this 4.5-km-long object, Rosetta will help unravel many of the mysteries of the Universe. The probe is presently revolving around the comet at an altitude of about 100 km. In the next few weeks, it will inch closer to the comet till it is at a distance of just 4 kilometers from its target.
From this slot, it will attempt the most audacious feat so far. It will lower the lander Philae to the comet’s surface. Identifying a smooth landing pad for Philae could not be made earlier as little was known about the comet’s terrain. The scientists had to wait for images of the surface that started coming in after Rosetta could reach a point 285 kilometers from the comet. The images reveal a ragged surface littered with sharp-edged structures punctuated by sharp ridges.
Still the surface remains bafflingly obscure. After higher-resolution photographs from a nearer distance are received and processed, the exact nature of the surface would be clear. Philae will hold itself to a fixed place through anchors, and use its complex array of instruments to scan and study its surroundings. How the 67P came to be born has remained intriguing so far. Since it looks like a structure with two lobs, Rosetta could have either been formed by the fusion of two comets. The other view is that it has undergone incremental erosion in the middle that looks like its neck now.
The Solar System came into existence around 4.6 billion years ago. Comets were formed from debris left over from the formation of the Solar system. These celestial objects consist of gas, dust and organic molecules. In them, they hide many facts and secrets the scientists will be too excited to learn. We will able to better understand the conditions under which our mother earth was born, life evolved in it. Amino acids that are the building blocks of life were, possibly, the gifts of the Comets to earth.
Philae will drill the surface of 64P to scoop out the material underneath. It will be analyzed by the on-board instruments and the data transmitted to earth. These data will be invaluable for the scientists who could never have accessed the information sitting on earth. The unraveling of the secrets locked so far away from us will gladden the heart of countless space-watchers on earth. In the event of sizeable discovery of Amino acids in the comet’s crust, the theory that life on earth came from the comets will be strengthened.
Another important study will be to measure the normal to heavy water (Deuterium oxide) on board the comet. If this matches the ratio in water on earth, the link between the comet and earth will be easy to establish. A similar analysis conducted on Hartley 2 comet some years ago had confirmed that the ice signature of water on earth was the same as that of the comet. Scientists are anxiously waiting to see if this indeed is the case with 64P.
Whatever be the findings, the scientific community of ESA will look back with satisfaction at this venture that cost nearly 1.3 billion Euros, and involved thousands of Europe’s best space-exploration minds. The distance of Rosetta from earth is so great that it took 22 minutes for the radio commands to reach the probe. This speaks volumes about the complexity of the mission. The 67P is moving away at a speed of 55,000 kilometers per hour. It takes superhuman skill to make a space craft to revolve around such a speeding object. The whole human race salutes the engineers and scientists who made the Rosetta mission possible.