Rosetta, Philae, and the Comet
Back in 2004, scientists from the European Space Agency sent out a satellite to observe the comet 67P, also known as Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Comet 67P is distinctly recognizable by its dual-lobed shape, similar to a massive rubber ducky. This has intrigued scientists because they wonder if the shape is the result of erosion or a collision of two comets.
Taking nearly a decade to arrive, the Rosetta satellite finally came into the comet’s orbit. In addition to carrying the necessary equipment to photograph the comet, the satellite also held a lander called Philae.
On November 12th of 2014, the Rosetta satellite released the lander to fall towards the comet. But when it landed, the probe bounced three times and was left stranded in a shadowy area, unable to recharge its batteries with solar power. After 60 hours, the probe was completely drained. The scientists didn’t hear from it again until 7 months later when it had finally amassed just enough solar power to send a message.
Meanwhile, the satellite continued taking pictures and mapped the comet. It managed to fly closer to the comet than any other satellites have before.
Now, on August 13 the comet will reach the point of its journey where it is closest to the sun. Being made of ice and rock, this phase of its journey will undoubtedly take its toll on the comet. Because it is only 115 million miles from the sun, the surface temperature will reach 86 degrees Fahrenheit. This will vaporize several meters of the comets surface, creating a bright plume of dust and gas. In fact, it is possible that the erosion will cause the comet to break in two.
While scientists would love to analyze the particles in the comet tail, the satellite has pulled further away in order to protect its instruments.
The project is scheduled to end on September 2016. Then, the scientists will have the probe decrease the distance of its orbit from the planet until it eventually crashes. This will allow for much closer pictures than before.
This mission was the result of countless hours, dedication, and over a billion euros. Whatever the result of this passing may be, the Rosetta satellite has given us great insight into what we know about comets and their vapor trails.
If you’re still interested, consider visiting the Rosetta Blog, run by the ESA.