Rosetta receives wake up call

After more than two years in hibernation the spacecraft will complete its mission


Credit: ESA

If succesful, Rosetta will become the first spacecraft to land on a comet

For the past 31 months, ESA’s comet hunting spacecraft Rosetta has been taking a well-earned rest after years spent traversing the Solar System.

But at 10.00 UT this morning (20 January 2014), with the space lab 807 million kilometres away from Earth, Rosetta’s instruments were reactivated, setting it back on course to intercept comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Reliant on solar power, Rosetta was put into hibernation mode –  the majority of its instruments turned off – as it made its way into the orbit of Jupiter, far too distant from the Sun to make any use of its energy.  

But now, after pointing its array directly at our star for over two years, the comet chaser has reserved enough power to complete its ambitious mission. Launched in 2004, Rosetta has already made three flybys of Earth and one of Mars in an attempt to build up enough speed to catch up with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

With Rosetta so far away, it will take 45 minutes for any signal to reach Earth, but we will have to wait until later this afternoon before we discover whether the wake up has been a success.

After six hours spent warming up, the spacecraft will rotate towards our planet and send confirmation that all is well, the earliest ESA will find out if the mission is back on track is 17.30 UT.

If everything goes to plan, Rosetta will spend the next few months travelling the remaining 9 million kilometres between it and the comet, flying alongside comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko to take close up measurements of this mysterious object for the first time.

In November, Rosetta will attempt to dispatch a landing vehicle, grappling onto the comet using a harpoon. The landing craft, Philae, will then use its instruments to take samples from the 4.6 billion-year-old space rock.

It is hoped that the mission will answer some of the fundamental questions we still have about comets, even addressing the possibility that they were responsible for seeding life on planet Earth.


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