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Ready for Landing

November 2, 2014

AUDIO: We’re at the comet! (cheers)

Flight controllers were celebrating back in August when the Rosetta spacecraft arrived at its destination — Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. And they hope to be celebrating again later this month. Rosetta will deploy a small probe that’s scheduled to land on the comet in just a few days.

It took more than 10 years and four trips around the Sun for Rosetta to reach the comet — a “leftover” from the birth of the solar system.

The comet is a big chunk of rock and ice. It actually looks like two chunks connected by a narrow neck. The comet is quite dark, and there’s not a lot of exposed ice at its surface.

Comets and asteroids are of special interest because they preserve a record of conditions in the early solar system. Studying them can reveal details about the birth and evolution of Earth and the other planets.

Rosetta’s probe will settle to a gentle landing on the comet, then fire a harpoon into it to keep itself from drifting away. It’ll measure the composition, temperature, and texture of the surface, and use a microscope to look at individual grains of material.

The probe could operate for several months as the comet moves closer to the Sun. During that time, some of the comet’s ice will begin to vaporize and gush out into space. That’ll free grains of solid material as well, surrounding the comet with a cloud of gas and dust and spawning a long tail — the beautiful calling card of a comet.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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