The UK space industry has been handed a boost after Europe’s Rosetta probe mission became the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet.
After a decade-long attempt, Rosetta has aligned with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko some 405m km from Earth half way between Jupiter and Mars.
The mission will see Rosetta follow the comet for over a year as it swings around the sun and back out towards Jupiter again, examining the object and exploring theories that comets may have helped seed Earth with water going back millennia.
Minister of state for universities and science Greg Clark said the landmark was a big success for the UK’s £9bn space industry, which featured large domestic input.
“Rosetta is a big mission for the UK, with much of the spacecraft built and designed here and our scientists involved in 10 of the mission’s instruments,” he said.
“As the spacecraft makes history as the first to orbit a comet as it swings around the Sun, our UK Rosetta scientists and engineers will be ‘on-board’ for the trip of a lifetime, ready to unlock the secrets of this time capsule from the dawn of our Solar System.”
Matt Taylor, the ESA’s Rosetta project scientist, said first images taken in June gave the team a clear indication of what they were dealing with.
“Our first clear views of the comet have given us plenty to think about,” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.
“Is this double-lobed structure built from two separate comets that came together in the Solar System’s history, or is it one comet that has eroded dramatically and asymmetrically over time? Rosetta, by design, is in the best place to study one of these unique objects.”
Just 100km from the comet’s surface, Rosetta will move closer and over the next six weeks, will describe two triangular-shaped trajectories in front of the comet, first at a distance of 100km and then 50km.
Eventually, Rosetta will attempt a near-circular orbit at 30 km in an attempt to move closer, with its primary landing spot to be decided by mid-September.
The final timeline for the sequence of events for deploying the Philae lander, which will send back a panorama of its surroundings, as well as surface images.
Ian Wright, professor of Planetary Sciences at The Open University, said his team will be looking for evidence once Philae touches down.
“Once the Philae lander touches down on the comet, we will be looking for evidence recorded in remnants of debris that survived the processes of planet formation,” he said.
“This is not merely a period of pre-history, but one that pre-dates the origin of life itself. Our quest is to gain insights into this transitional era, which took place more than 4.5 billion years ago.”