Comets Comets Comets – Will Rosetta & Philae recapture the public’s imagination?

Last year, at the very end of November, the world of space and science revelled in the spotlight for a while as comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) passed close to earth, passing round the sun, only to disappear in a few lingering wisps of cometary debris.


Comet ISON’s pass round the Sun.

During this perihelion pass, I (like many others) was glued to a multitude of scientific newsfeeds from NASA, ESA and other users in my own twitter feed. For the self-confessed astrogeek in me, no Hollywood blockbuster even came close to the will it or won’t it debate!

For a short period of time comet ISON captured the imagination of the world’s media, both social and mainstream, and gave a huge boost to the place of science in pop culture.
This was however, shortlived (as usual) and science soon returned to its comfortable old armchair at the back of the hall.

But there’s a newcomer on the horizon! Another opportunity for science (and space in particular) to be thrust back into the limelight, and it comes in the form of a well travelled space probe called Rosetta.


Artists impression of the Rosetta spacecraft.

Launched in March 2004 aboard an Ariane V, the Rosetta mission has taken over 10 years to reach its goal – another comet!
This one, called 67P/C-G (Churyumov–Gerasimenko), is a large icy rock that completes its eliptical orbit of the sun once every 6.45 years.

After it’s incredible journey into the outer solars system, Rosetta reached the comet on 6th August 2014, becoming the first spacecraft to go into orbit around a comet.


Close up detail of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Lets just take a moment here to let this sink in …… we’ve successfully managed to launch a space probe, guided it to perform four gravity assist manoeuvres (around earth three times and Mars once) to gather enough speed, precisely calculate the position of a lump of rock and ice in the vastness of space, wake the space probe after ten years in sleep mode, in order to not only greet the comet at over 600 million km from earth but enter into orbit with the nucleus at a distance of just 30km!
Thats just incredible!
Absolutely incredible!

But the best is yet to come.

Scheduled for the 12th November, the second part of the Rosetta mission gets underway and involves a passenger that Rosetta has carried on its epic journey. No a passenger in the form of a person but a small robotic lander called Philae. This will detach itself from the main body of the spaceprobe and, if all goes well, achieve something that has never been achieved before, a controlled decent and landing on a cometary surface.  WOW!


Artists impression in the detached lander “Philae” on approach to the comet’s surface.

Immediately after touchdown Philae will deploy harpoons to anchor itself to the cometary surface and commence a series of scientific experiements to look at the comet’s surface and sub-surface composition as well as the plasma and magnetic environments of the nucleus.

For some people,that will not be exciting at all.
For others (myself included) it will be an incredible feat of science and engineering and marks a spectacular acheivement in space exploration.

No mater into which camp you fall, I just hope that the mainstream media give this endeavour the attention it deserves.

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