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ESA - Rosetta - Studying Comets

Five awesome facts you may not know about the ESA's Rosetta comet mission

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, November 12, 2014, 1:28 PM - With the European Space Agency's historic comet landing complete, here are five amazing facts about this ambitious mission to an ancient piece of our solar system, known as Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

1. The mission is over a decade old!

All the attention on the mission has popped up over the last six months or so, but for the scientists and engineers involved with the mission, this will be the culmination of over 10 years of waiting. Launched in March of 2004, the Rosetta spacecraft has traced a wide-arcing orbit in its flight to rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, journeying even beyond the orbit of Jupiter on its way! The mission was far from idle for all those year, though, as the team made some amazing discoveries even before the spacecraft arrived at its destination.

CLICK BELOW TO WATCH: "We are sending this spacecraft to comets to learn more about ourselves ... our life on Earth ... our Solar System ..."

2. This isn't just a visit, but a historic landing!

Rosetta didn't make this decade-long journey just to make a flyby or only to orbit Comet 67P, and it didn't make the journey alone. The spacecraft has been carrying a small lander, roughly the size of a dishwasher, named Philae. On the morning of November 12, at 08:35 UTC (or 3:35 a.m. EST), Philae will detach itself from Rosetta and make a 7-hour-long descent to the surface of the comet. Why so long, when Rosetta will only be about 22 kilometres away when the lander begins its descent? Philae's landing target is one specific spot, located on a spinning, tumbling, rubber-ducky shaped hunk of ice and rock. Not only that, though, the gravity on Comet 67P is estimated at around one-ten-thousandth of the gravity of Earth, so an astronaut standing on its surface could reach escape velocity simply by stomping their foot. All of that adds up to a great need for caution during the operation.

CLICK BELOW TO WATCH: "Within hours, we will see our very first views of a comet, from its surface ..."

3. The landing is dangerous!

No human lives are at risk from Philae's landing, of course, as the mission team will be safe at ESA’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany. However, the lander itself is at considerable risk, as the surface conditions could cause it to tip over as it touches down.

"There's craters, crevices, boulders, gravelly areas," Laurence O'Rourke, a lander system engineer with the Rosetta mission, told CNN. "The comet is a very strange structure and there's a lot of luck involved."

CLICK BELOW TO WATCH: ESA animation shows the intricate details of Philae's landing, and how the robot probe will conduct its science.

4. This landing could help us discover where we came from!

The science that Philae conducts on the surface of Comet 67P will certainly yield some fascinating results, simply about comets themselves. However, it could reveal answers to some of the most fundamental questions we have - where did Earth's abundant water come from, and what kick-started life on our planet?

CLICK BELOW TO WATCH: The lander's instruments will use light, electrical conductivity, magnetism, heat and acoustics to examine the comet's properties, on, above and below the surface.

5. This isn't just about exploration, or even science ... it's about ambition.

There's a motto on the wall at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It says Dare Mighty Things. Stuck on this one planet, as we are, we're not only limited in our scope, but vulnerable to catastrophe. To broaden our horizons means to venture out and try new things, explore new worlds, and discover new things about not only the Universe, but ourselves. Missions like Rosetta are small ones, but they represent a beginning ... turning science fiction into reality. Just watch this incredible short film that explains why this is so important:

TEST YOUR SKILLS!: Can you make the perfect Philae landing, and then beam the mission's awesome discoveries back to Earth? Rosetta's success is in your hands!

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