Comet Catching: Scientists One Step Closer To Reeling In An Interplanetary Ice Ball

The comet catching spacecraft dubbed Rosetta by scientists is one step closer to success.

The Rosetta spacecraft caught up to the comet called 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko days ago and will send its lander, dubbed Philae to the comet’s icy surface on November 11th. Astonishingly, Rosetta has been chasing the comet for over a decade. During that time, the spacecraft looped around the sun five times and traveled over 6.4 billion kilometers (about 3 billion miles) total.

This week, after Rosetta finally caught up with the comet, controllers on Earth have picked five potential sites for the Philae lander to set down on in November according to IOL.com.

The 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Comet

Many have said that the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet has a distinct “duck” shape from certain angles. In essence, the comet has two more pronounced ends with a thinner section in its center. The comet is about 4 kilometers across and the potential landing sites being looked at are all approximately one square kilometer in size.

The European Space Agency (ESA) which is the command center for the comet catching mission, says that the landing will be tricky.

“Choosing the right landing site is a complex process. That site must balance the technical needs of the orbiter and lander during all phases of the separation, descent and landing, and during operations on the surface with the scientific requirements of the ten instruments on Philae.”

This mission will make the ESA able to claim a wide variety of scientific firsts. Other satellites have performed “fly-bys” on comets before to take pictures and amass data from afar, but Rosetta and its lander will be the first to track a comet at its closest and farthest points from the sun, not to mention actually land on a comet’s surface.

The differences between the comet being close to the sun and farther away are wildly disparate. Dr. Tony Phillips, production editor at NASA Science News spoke to the differences in the comet that Rosetta will track.

“[Rosetta will study the comet] as it transforms from a quiet nugget of ice and rock, frozen solid by years spent in deep space, to a sun-warmed dynamo spewing jets of gas and dust into a magnificently evolving tail.”

Scientist’s hopes are high that once Philae lands on the surface, the information and data it collects will be astounding, says Universe Today. Mark McCaughrean, a scientific adviser for ESA, was quoted as describing the surface of the alien comet as a “Scientific Disneyland.”

The landing of Philae on the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Comet’s surface will take place in mid-November, when the comet is approximately 450 million kilometers from the sun.

images via Universe Today and Science-a-go-go