By Roman Orsini
On Wednesday, Nov. 12, a space probe launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully landed on Comet 67P after a 10-year mission to study it’s makeup. The Rosetta probe is the first spacecraft to orbit a comet and has travelled four billion miles to do so, according to the New York Times.
Rosetta was launched in 2004 from French Guyana. The solar-powered probe travelled past Jupiter and the asteroid belt before it lost contact with the sun and began to hibernate in 2011. After 31 months, operators in Darmstadt, Germany reactivated Rosetta. According to the ESA, the probe began orbiting Comet 67P in September and is now three times Earth’s distance from the sun.
The probe was named after the Rosetta Stone, an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph, which dates back to 200 B.C. The stone contained writing in ancient Egyptian and Greek and was key to understanding those languages after it was discovered in 1799. Today, the Rosetta probe travels through space with a microdisc containing an archive of languages.
Comet 67P was discovered in 1969 by two Russian scientists, Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, after whom it was named. The comet is two-and-a-half miles wide and has an irregular shape. Located just outside of Jupiter’s gravitational reach, 67P makes an orbit around the sun every six-and-a-half years. The Rosetta probe will continue its orbit into next year and record changes in the comet as it approaches the sun.
The landing craft to make contact, named Philae, attached to the soft surface of the comet with harpoons, according to NASA. On Friday, Nov. 14, after taking samples and recording data, Philae’s solar cells lost power amidst the dark surface of the comet. Scientists hope to revive the lander next year, as the comet comes closest to the sun.
According to the ESA, comets “are the oldest, most primitive bodies in the Solar System, preserving the earliest record of material from the nebula out of which our Sun and planets were formed.”
The purpose of the mission is to learn more about the makeup and origins of comets. Scientists hope to examine samples of 67P’s surface to determine what elements they contain. It has been theorized that comet impacts during Earth’s formation brought water and life supporting elements. The Rosetta mission may offer a glimpse into the role of comets during the formation of the solar system, as well as life on Earth.