UPDATE Wednesday 8:08 a.m.: European Space Agency officials say they succeeded in landing the spacecraft on a comet for the first time in history.
PASADENA (CBSLA.com) — It’s been a mission in progress for 10 years for the European Space Agency, and scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are among those watching keenly as the first-of-its-kind objective prepares to reach its apex.
In March of 2004, ESA launched the Rosetta spacecraft to pursue the once-unthinkable dream of landing on a comet. Ten years later, Rosetta and her small landing companion Philae have caught up with and are prepared to execute their operation to land on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, about 28 light-minutes away from Earth.
The comet is traveling through the solar system at a speed of 84,000 mph — almost five times faster than the orbital speed of the International Space Station.
If successful, the Rosetta mission, named after the legendary Rosetta Stone for its potential to unlock a number of important secrets, would mark the first time man was able to land a piece of equipment on a comet.
It is undeniably one of the boldest space missions of all time, as well as the longest in terms of length, as the success of 10 years of spaceflight hinges on the next critical stage, which will occur Wednesday morning.
The Rosetta spacecraft, the first to orbit a comet, is being closely monitored by scientists of the ESA, as well as a number of local JPL scientists who are involved in the mission, as it prepares to detach Philae to descend to the comet’s surface. At this point, scientists hope the roughly washing-machine-size Philae will land softly on a designated landing zone.
NASA’s Donald Yeomans described that the trick is to land Philae on a spot with minimal rocks or slopes.
“This is an extraordinary mission,” Yeomans said. “And that’s risky, but it’s worth the risk.”
Some scientists have argued that comets may have played a major role in the formation of water, and subsequently life, on our own planet. Part of Rosetta’s mission is to study the comet’s nucleus, through use of drilling, infrared imaging, sampling, analysis, acoustic monitoring and X-ray imaging.
Before Rosetta’s 2004 launch on-board the reliable Ariane 5 heavy launch system, Southern California native and JPL scientist Claudia Alexander was brought on as a project scientist for the mission.
Alexander, along with half a dozen of her JPL colleagues, are in Europe to oversee NASA’s contributions to the mission, which has never before been attempted.
Rosetta was confirmed as a ‘Go’ for separation shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday.
Among the potential rewards of successfully studying the comet’s properties, scientists anticipate Rosetta’s mission may result in learning more about protecting our planet from these cosmic objects.
“The more we learn about these objects, the better we’ll be equipped to handle one on an Earth-threatening trajectory, if that should ever happen,” Yeomans said.
If Philae’s landing is successful, it would not mark an end to Rosetta’s mission. Rosetta will remain in 67P’s orbit, capturing data and images, and sending them back to Earth for study and analysis.
JPL scientists, meanwhile, say they will be eagerly watching the landing, which will be be streamed live over NASA TV early Wednesday, from 6 a.m. Pacific time through 8 a.m.
ESA is offering a live webcast of the ESA mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.