7 Facts everybody should know about the Rosetta Mission

1: Scientists have been flying spacecraft by comets since 1978

It was not until July 2005 that a deposit sampler was propelled onto a comet to return data about the various comet characteristics. All the other 7 spacecraft tail-gated the comets they crossed paths with, taking photographs and more recently sampling the dust particles in the comet debris left behind. The Contour project, launched in 2002 was the first failed mission to investigate comets, in which manoeuvres into the Heliosphere caused a communication malfunction. In total, 8 missions have been deployed to various comets throughout the solar system. Rosetta is the ninth and so far successful mission to a comet. It is the first historic orbit of a comet a spacecraft has ever done.

2. The Rosetta Mission is Egyptian Themed

In A.D. 1799, during the Napoleonic War in Egypt, french soldiers with control of the Rashid (previously known as Rosetta) Fort not far from Alexandria, uncovered the remains of a proclamation made by the Ptolemaic Pharaoh, Ptolemy V, to roll out tax exemptions to the priesthood of the a once glorious Egypt. To make sure all understood the decree, it was recorded on individual stone slab in three different languages, one of which was the indecipherable ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics. The race was on to decipher the text between the British, Thomas Young and the French Jean-Francois Champollion, shortly after the discovery of the stele.

The Rosetta Mission hopes to emulate the success of the two gentlemen above, by approaching many questions regarding the comets of the solar system. This will be done by having a spacecraft orbit the icy body and have a lander conduct tests on its surface. That lander was also given a name – Philae. Giovanni Belzoni, a circus strongman and engineer travelled to the island of Philae, where a temple dedicated to the god ISIS (not the Islamic State) contained an obelisk which, he duly shipped to Cairo to be exported to London. This obelisk was key in deciphering hieroglyphics. It was by using this obelisk’s inscription that the cartouche was discovered to represented the name of pharaohs.

In short the Rosetta Mission is an homage to discovery and the search for answers to difficult questions about the origin of life and at a very basic level, just to learn more about comets.

3. Is life possible on comet 67P Churyumov-Gasimenko? 

A plausible scientific hypothesis, states that life began on earth, thanks to the presence of water and potential self-replicating molecules on asteroids that continually struck the early earth 4.55 billion years ago. Finding the potential for life on these comets continues to provide evidence, for and against such a hypothesis. The Rosetta mission has a more focused mission to collect detailed data about the landscape in which the Philae Lander finds itself.

4. The Rosetta Orbiter has 11 scientific instruments to examine the comet

The instruments are currently taking photographs, examining debris particles, gas and internal structure all while orbiting the comet. One particularly important instrument is the MIRO (Microwave Instrument for the Rosetta Orbiter) will examine the quantity of gas that envelops the comet, while also keeping track of those surface outgassing rates. There is a great deal of ice on the comet, turned to the sun, the ice evaporates causing gas ejections, which could  endanger the philae-stage of the Mission.

5. The Philae Lander has 10 instruments to investigate the characteristics of the comet

The lander will only be able to drill 20cm into the surface of the comet with the SD2 (Sample and Distribution Device) which will deliver the samples to the various instruments for analysis. Three of the 10 instruments will be devoted to scanning the interior of the comet with ground penetrating radar, magnetometry and resistivity featuring in the analysis. This is more specialised than your average geophysical survey, so this description is rather simple. In all, these techniques, put together will give us an understanding of the density, magnetic field and electrical characteristics of the comet. The cometary sample and composition experiment (COSAC) will focus upon the elemental and molecular composition of organic molecules, which are essential for life. To do this two gas analysers will probe the samples extracted from the surface.

Rosetta
A 3D model of the Rosetta Spacecraft. This is not a true representation of Rosetta as the actual spacecraft is protected by black multi layer insulation blankets, the High Gain is also black. Also the individual scientific payloads are highlighted in different colours on this model. The image was created using Celestia.

6. 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko and comets in general

First identified in Kazakhstan, 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Svetlana Gerasimenko took the photograph, while Klim Churyumov identified the new comet. It is about 3 by 5 kilometres in dimension. A comet is a small icy body in outer space that gives off a characteristic white tail, thanks to the evaporating ice, melted due to the sun’s heat. Asteroids, on the other hand are minor planets with no comet characteristics, ranging from hundreds of metres to hundreds of kilometres across. The European Space Agency (ESA) have, thus far, identified just over 5,000 such icy bodies in the solar system.

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