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Hello World! Comet-chasing spacecraft Rosetta back online

Tuesday, January 21, 2014, 2:56 PM - After a 31 month slumber, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft has awaken and is back on course to hunting down a comet.

It's been over two-and-a-half years of waiting but scientists at the European Space Agency can finally relax after their Rosetta spacecraft finally came online.

Rosetta had been put into hibernation in order to conserve power. It is currently chasing down Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, with the hope of a rendezvous. 

The spacecraft has been in operation since 2004, doing several flybys of Earth, and one of Mars to stay on course with the comet. 

Operating on solar energy, officials at the ESA placed it into a deep shutdown in 2011 as it drifted over 800 km from the sun and beyond the orbit of even Jupiter.

Rosetta is still over 9 million km from comet 67P but has moved to within 673 million km from the sun - close enough to receive solar energy.  

“We have our comet-chaser back,” says Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. “With Rosetta, we will take comet exploration to a new level. This incredible mission continues our history of ‘firsts’ at comets, building on the technological and scientific achievements of our first deep space mission Giotto, which returned the first close-up images of a comet nucleus as it flew past Halley in 1986.”

STORM WATCH: Nor'easter targeting Atlantic Canada will bring snow and gusty winds early Wednesday morning 

Scientists had a nervous wait for Rosetta to send a message home. (Photo courtesy ESA)

Scientists had a nervous wait for Rosetta to send a message home. (Photo courtesy ESA)

Around 18:18 GMT, Rosetta's pre-programmed 'alarm clock' sent a signal to power up the spacecraft.

After key navigation instruments were sufficiently warm, Rosetta began to stabilise itself and prepare to contact Earth.

Aiming its antenna home, Rosetta sent a signal to let mission operators know it had survived the most challenging part of the mission.  

The signal was received by both NASA’s Goldstone and Canberra ground stations and once confirmed by the ESA’s space operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany, the world was notified via the @ESA_Rosetta twitter account, which tweeted: “Hello, World!”  

“This was one alarm clock not to hit snooze on, and after a tense day we are absolutely delighted to have our spacecraft awake and back online,” said Fred Jansen, ESA’s Rosetta mission manager.

Waiting for the signal from Rosetta was a tense moment for ESA officials. 

The huge distance between the craft and Earth mean transmissions have a one-way travel time of 45 minutes.

Landing on a comet

Scientists plan to use Rosetta to drop a 100 kg Philae probe on comet 67P. 

After performing additional diagnostics on the craft, 11 instruments will be turned on while 10 will be powered up on the lander. 

The next critical period on the mission's timeline will be in May, when Rosetta will be 2 million km from its target - close enough to begin imaging.

After this, a manoeuvre will be performed to line it up for its final approach - possibly in late August. 

Before sending out a probe, Rosetta will need to perform extensive mapping procedures of the comet, analyzing gravity, mass and shape while also looking at the atmosphere. This data will determine the best landing site. 

Landing is currently scheduled for 11 November and will be the first time that a landing on a comet has ever been attempted. (Photo courtesy ESA)

Landing is currently scheduled for 11 November and will be the first time that a landing on a comet has ever been attempted. (Photo courtesy ESA)

Comets are time machines

Landing on a comet has taken on great significance for researchers looking to learn more about the origins of the universe.

Known as 'dirty snowballs' to some, comets are comprised of material largely unchanged since the formation of the solar system - approximately 4.6 billion years ago.

Some may think a comet is nothing special in the grand scheme of space but for many scientists, it's an opportunity to develop an understanding of a time that still boggles the mind.

"This is where we think about our place in the Universe, about how the Solar System developed and about life," added Gimenez. "Comet 67P is made out of material that is linked to the infancy of our Solar System, giving us information about the gas and dust that gave birth to our Solar System. It will be like opening a window in time."

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