“We are delighted to announce finally ‘we are here’,” says Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General. After 10 years of travelling through the solar system, the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft began its manoeuvre to orbit the Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 6 August 2014. The first images of the Rosetta’s rendezvous with the comet were presented during an event held at ESA’s Space Operations Centre, ESOC, in Darmstadt, Germany, on the same day.
Named after the Rosetta Stone, which was discovered in 1822 and whose engravings have helped to understand hieroglyphs, the Rosetta spacecraft was launched in 2004. The trajectory to reach the Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko is one of the most complex ever planned: benefiting from gravity-assisted flybys of Earth and Mars, Rosetta finally passed over Saturn, sending to Earth astonishing pictures of asteroids in that area. After Saturn, in order to save energy, the spacecraft was shut down, travelling alone in space. After a 2-year sleep, Rosetta woke up in January of this year when the satellite’s 11 science instruments and 10 lander instruments were reactivated. Observations of the comet have begun and trajectory adjustments were needed to match the targeted comet. J.J. Dordain complimented the ESA’s engineers and scientists as the best drivers ever.
The 6 August 2014 is hailed as the end of the journey of Rosetta, when orbiting manoeuvres began. After 22 min of waiting, which corresponds to time needed by the signal to travel the 405 million kilometres from Rosetta to Earth, William Shatner, alias Captain James T. Kirk from Star Trek, summarized the situation: “Everything within normal parameters, Capt’n”.
“Arriving at the comet is really only just the beginning of an even bigger adventure,” said Sylvain Lodiot, ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft operations manager. As Rosetta approached the comet, observations have already revealed an unexpected “duck-shaped” nucleus. Of course, more than a picture of the comet is expected from the ESA mission. Temperature measurements, gas detections, activity observations will continue as Rosetta orbits the comet. Collected data will be used to explore the origin of water on Earth, phenomenons from of the early Universe, and much more.
A robotic lander, named Philae after an antic Egyptian obelisk, is expected to land on the comet in November this year. “After landing, Rosetta will continue to accompany the comet until its closest approach to the Sun in August 2015 and beyond, watching its behaviour from close quarters to give us a unique insight and real-time experience of how a comet works as it hurtles around the Sun,” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.
J.J. Dordain concludes: “Europe’s Rosetta is now the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet, a major highlight in exploring our origins. The discoveries can begin.”