Rosetta Space Probe Explores the Origins of the Solar System
SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem.
On August 6th of this year the European Space Agency completed a 10 year journey of the space probe Rosetta to the object designated Comet 67P. While several cometary flybys and missions have been completed in the past, Rosetta will accomplish a series of firsts, according to the European Space Agency. It is the first spacecraft to orbit a comet, and as such it will be the first to accompany a comet as it journeys to the inner solar system. It will be the first to see up close the transformation of a comet as it approaches the sun. Rosetta will place a robotic lander on the surface in the first-ever controlled landing on a comet. The images produced will be the first ever taken from the surface of a comet.
So, what can we expect to learn from a mission like this? To find out we spoke with Jonathan Ward. He is the author of an upcoming book about launching the Apollo missions from Kennedy Space Center, and he volunteers as a NASA-sanctioned JPL Solar System Ambassador.
We think that comets represent a real good feel for what the solar system was made out of 4 1/2 billion years ago. We also think that comets played a key role in the evolution of the planets because we know that cometary impacts were much more common in the early parts of the solar system’s history than they are now. Because of the amount of water in comets, we believe the comets probably played a very key part in the formation of Earth’s oceans. We also believe that comets carry a lot of organic material which could've been the complex organic molecules that help play a crucial role in the origins of life on Earth.
Comets are likely remnants of the nebula in which the Sun and planets of our solar system were born. They are well studied, but much of overall nature will remain a mystery until we can complete up close missions like these.
So, what DO we know about Comet 67P so far? Rosetta has provided some information while en route to its destination.
It's a very irregular shape they were calling at the rubber ducky for a little while. Its got two lobes connected by a smooth bridge they’re calling the neck. The comet is covered with craters that are filled in with some sort material. We're trying to figure out if it's ice or dust or whatever but it looks to me almost like scalloped potatoes. They brightened it up considerably so you can see the contrast, but a comet itself is very, very dark material.
Now that Rosetta is in orbit around the comet, it can begin its main science mission.
As it comes closer into the sun on its orbit the comet begins to start to outgas volatile materials like ice and water and bits and particles. So Rosetta will be orbiting around the comet to be able to be able to sample some of that maternal at the same time is has a lander called Philae which is going to land on the comet in November of this year it will be active and studying the comet for three months perhaps longer. The idea is for Rosetta to orbit around for the next year or so, studying the comet, taking pictures of it and sampling the material that gets released from it while at the same time the Philae lander is also then drilling into the surface of the comet and being able to take some samples of what's inside there, and be able to study them.The spacecraft is now getting closer and closer to the comet over the course of the next couple of months. It's right now in a series of hyperbolic orbits. Eventually it's going to circularize its orbit and start getting closer and closer. When it is going to launch the lander, it will approach to within about 1 km of the comet surface, gradually release the lander which will fall out at a speed of about a mile to 2 miles an hour. As it touches the comet surface it fires two harpoons into the comet to grab onto and pull itself down and then has a couple of ice drills that drill down and anchor it to the surface of the comet, so it's a very different type of landing than what we're used to.
Scientists are looking forward to accessing the data Rosetta will provide, and this data will be compared against the findings of previous cometary missions.
Rosetta will stay with the comet. The hope is that Rosetta will start to see activity picking up on the comet as it warms up we’ll see more things getting emitted from the comet in terms of gas and things like that. We’ve already seen some pictures of jets coming out of the comet. Interestingly, they appear to be coming from the neck area of the comet. Other comets that we’ve looked at from other flyby missions, the jets come from the lobes of the comet rather than the neck area. So we still have a lot to learn about how comets work.