More than 10 years after its launch, Rosetta, the European Space Agency (ESA) satellite, is to make history today as the first man-made object to land on a comet.
Expected to begin at 10am Irish time, Rosetta will begin a seven-minute burn to reach a distance of 100 km from the comet, designated 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. There the spacecraft will manoeuvre again to launch a lander onto the comet’s surface, in the ultimate hope of discovering more about the make-up of the universe that surrounds Earth.
Comets are considered vital to understanding the universe as they are considered to be the oldest remnants of its birth, with leftover material that has drifted through space since some 4.6bn years ago.
For those in ESA mission control headquarters, it will be an anxious wait for confirmation of the operation’s success, as the distance between Rosetta and Earth is so grand it will take about 30 minutes before a signal reaches the headquarters.
Not one, but almost two comets
Only recently scientists and those involved in the €1bn operation became worried after it was discovered that the comet, which is the equivalent size of Mont Blanc, is actually comprised of two co-joined entities. The scientists fear this could make landing on the comet’s surface that much more difficult.
According to The Guardian, the lack of any gravitational pull from the comet means the lander will essentially have to board the comet, much-like that of a pirate, by harpooning itself to the surface and pulling itself in.
Those waiting to hear news of the lander’s complete successful landing will have to wait until the end of August, when the lander is expected to detach from the main spacecraft at an orbit of just 30 km from the comet’s surface.
If you would like to watch the live stream of Rosetta’s rendez-vous, the ESA is broadcasting its event from its mission headquarters.
The Rosetta probe launched from French Guiana more than a decade ago.
Speaking to Siliconrepublic.com, Astronomy Ireland's David Moore says the mission, aside from landing a craft on the comet's surface being an incredible achievement, is important in answering the origins of one of our biggest mysteries, the origins of life on Earth: "One of the big questions in astronomy is where did life come from? Did it evolve on the Earth only, or could it come from somewhere else in the universe?
"One thing we’ve realised is that there’s too much water on the Earth and the best way to explain where it came from is that it mostly came from comets. If we can examine that water in detail, we can find out more about its composition and does it match the Earth’s water or if we need to look again."