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She's Made It! Rosetta Spacecraft Catches Up To Comet

Aug 06, 2014 11:11 AM EDT
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After playing an otherworldly game of cat-and-mouse for more than a decade, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft has finally caught up to its comet quarry, making history with a first meeting at breakneck speeds of more than 3,400 mph (55,000 km/h.)
[Pictured: comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko from 285 km. on August 3.]
(Photo : ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

After playing an otherworldly game of cat-and-mouse for more than a decade, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft has finally caught up to its comet quarry, making history with a first meeting at breakneck speeds of more than 3,400 mph (55,000 km/h.)

"After 10 years, five months and four days traveling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometers, we are delighted to announce finally 'we are here,'" Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's Director General, said in a statement this morning.

"Europe's Rosetta is now the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet," he added, "a major highlight in exploring our origins. The discoveries can begin."

According to the ESA, Wednesday, June 6 saw the last of a series of 10 rendezvous maneuvers that began in May after Rosetta first spotted its "dust veiled" quarry - the comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko. With this last maneuver into a tight orbit around the comet, everyone involved in the project, including US experts manning NASA's Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) onboard the Rosetta craft, breathed a sigh of relief.

"If any of these maneuvers had failed, the mission would have been lost, and the spacecraft would simply have flown by the comet," the ESA reported.

These movements helped the Rosetta craft position itself to eventually deploy a specially designed landing unit, which will analyze and make direct contact with the nucleolus of the comet, even as it continues to streak through the galaxy in a slow-but-fatal spiral towards the Sun.

[Credit: ESA/C. Carreau]

"Today's achievement is a result of a huge international endeavour spanning several decades," said Alvaro Giménez, ESA's Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

"We have come an extraordinarily long way since the mission concept was first discussed in the late 1970s and approved in 1993, and now we are ready to open a treasure chest of scientific discovery that is destined to rewrite the textbooks on comets for even more decades to come."

As it prepared to deploy its landing device, Rosetta will continue to accompany 67P until its closest approach to the Sun in August 2015.

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