A recent landmark, or should I say spacemark, is prompting scientists to bring out the cake: Rosetta’s one year anniversary is just around the corner, and it’s time to celebrate the fantastic scientific achievements that have been made possible by the comet orbiter.
Back in 2004, hopes were high, stakes were high, and expectations went through the roof with the launch of the Rosetta spacecraft on March 4th from the Space Center in Guiana, French Guiana. Piggybacking its way along with it was the little comet lander Philae, which had no idea back then what kind of a bumpy ride it would be in for.
As scientists calculated its rough trajectory around the solar system, the mission seemed to become ever harder. No man made space vehicle could have ever achieved the rocket power necessary to reach a comet, it would consume way too much energy. So the scientists devised an intricate trajectory which they planned into the spacecraft.
To get to the comet, the craft had to perform several course corrections, and had to use some gravity tricks to get in a correct orbit and not just fly by the comet, or crash into it. After just one year from its launch, the satellite had to come back to Earth and make a flyby of our own planet in the effort to adjust its course. This happened exactly one year after liftoff – on March 4th 2005.
The spacecraft then headed for Mars. It was programed to effectively get up close and personal with our red neighbor, passing just 160 miles off its surface. This happened February 25th, 2007. This was a particularly tricky maneuver since all solar panels had to be turned off, as the orbiter passed by during the Martian night. This prompted the name “The Billion Euro Gamble” since the craft’s batteries hadn’t been designed for such a task.
Then, ten months later, in November, the craft came back for another encounter with its home planet – this time we didn’t even recognize it and some instruments picked it up as an asteroid heading for collision.
Then, the spacecraft performed a flyby of the asteroid 2867 Šteins in September 2008, another one of Earth in November 2009, and another one of the asteroid 21 Lutetia in July 2010. This three maneuvers placed it for a rendezvous with the comet in August 2014. After that, the orbit had to be carefully adjusted.
Since then, it has discovered many interesting things, such as the rubber-duck shape of the comet, the fact that it contains molecular nitrogen, and that the water vapors are completely different from those on Earth.
As Rosetta is entering its second year around 67P/ Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the science it’s producing is overwhelming mission control every day with new puzzles.
Image source: dailymail.co.uk