Nation & World News

Rosetta Spacecraft Arrives At Comet After 10-Year Chase

By Geoff Brumfiel on August 6th, 2014

After a decade of travel, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft arrived at a comet early this morning.

“Ten years we’ve been waiting in the car to get to scientific Disneyland,” ESA’s Mark McCaughrean said. “It’s a wonderful moment.”

The comet, called 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, orbits the sun once every six years or so. It’s an unusual shape — some say it looks like a rubber duck, others like the spaceship “Serenity” from the sci-fi series Firefly.

Rosetta will now stay with the comet as it travels around the sun. The spacecraft’s scientific instruments will be used to probe everything from the dust thrown up by the comet, to its internal structure.

In November, Rosetta will release a lander about the size of a small refrigerator. The lander will float down to the comet’s surface and attempt to secure itself using harpoons. Harpooning a comet would be a first for humanity.

Ultimately, researchers say studying comet 67P should teach them more about the origins of the solar system. Comets are thought to be leftover raw ingredients from when our sun and the planets formed. They may even have brought the water in Earth’s oceans — seeding the planet for the birth of life itself.

Here’s a look at the long and circuitous route Rosetta took to arrive at its destination:

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript :

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The European Space Agency says that after a decade of travel, a spacecraft has successfully arrived at a comet.

MARK MCCAUGHREAN: 10 years we’ve been in the car waiting to get to scientific Disneyland and you know, it’s a wonderful moment.

INSKEEP: (Laughing) The agency’s Mark McCaughrean spoke this morning. NPR’s science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel joins us – hi Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi there.

INSKEEP: I’m just think about how many times my kids would say at a 10-year car ride – are we there yet, are we there yet, are we there yet – so what have they arrived at? Why is this Disneyland to be at this comet?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I’ll tell you. It looks like a pretty bleak Disneyland in some ways. It is sort of a rocky outcropping of two big pieces of material stuck together – it’s really odd looking. The comment is called, and I’m going to do my best here, Churyumov-Gerasimenko – or you can call it 67P if that’s too intimidating.

INSKEEP: Let’s go with, that that’s fine. 67P

BRUMFIEL: So was discovered in 1969 and it’s actually kind of a run-of-the-mill comet. You can’t see it from the ground without a telescope, it’s not like Halley’s Comet or Hale-Bopp, but even by its very weird looking shape, it’s already surprised scientists. I mean, we tend to think of comets these dirty snowballs. And this thing – some people have said it looks like a rubber ducky, some people have said it looks like the Monopoly boot.

INSKEEP: OK?

BRUMFIEL: It’s a very strange looking and foreign object.

INSKEEP: OK, the rubber ducky, that’s kind of exciting, but I’m not sure I’m quite getting the Disneyland thing here. What is it about this particular comet that makes it so exciting that scientists were willing to chase it with a spacecraft for a decade?

BRUMFIEL: You know, I think – I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the second part of that – chasing a comet with a spacecraft is actually the exciting part. The spacecraft is called Rosetta, and it’s basically a box with two solar panels on either side. And what it’s going to do is just interrogate this comet with every scientific instrument it has. It’s going to looking at it with radar, with cameras. They have a microscope aboard to look at some of the dust particles. And – and we’ve never really done this before. Comets orbit the sun, sort of like planets, but they go much further out into deep space. And so following a comet around the sun as it is heated, as it develops that famous tail – this is something really new and really exciting. And then they’re going to try and land on this comet.

INSKEEP: So – so how do you go about landing on this rubber ducky?

BRUMFIEL: (Chuckles) Well, I mean, that’s the crazy thing – no one’s ever done it before. Nobody really knows how they’re going to do it. But they’ve got an idea – they’re going to try harpoons. So…

INSKEEP: What?

BRUMFIEL: Yeah, exactly.

INSKEEP: Like – like with whaling?

BRUMFIEL: Like with whaling.

INSKEEP: They’re going to shoot – OK? And then pull in with the rope.

BRUMFIEL: So there’s – there’s a lander that the spacecraft is going to release – it’ll fall towards the comet. But comets have such – I mean, they’re so small – they don’t have a lot of gravity. It could just bounce right off. So they’ve got this idea – they’re going to harpoon the comet. They’re going to stick these spears into it and hopefully the lander will stick. They don’t know – I mean, they don’t really know what this comet is made of, what the ground conditions are like. And that’s sort of what’s so exciting about this whole trip is – they’re just going for it. It’s something very unusual, very daring.

INSKEEP: OK, very briefly, other than just the general awesomeness of harpooning a comet, is there some larger scientific truth that can be learned here?

BRUMFIEL: Oh yeah. Well, comets are the raw ingredients of the solar system. I mean, we think comets are sort of the – the base material that came before you know, planets and other things formed. So by studying comets, we should learn a lot about how the planets formed, how the stars formed, ultimately how we got here.

INSKEEP: Wow, Geoff, thanks very much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That’s NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfield reporting this morning on the effort to harpoon a comet after a European Space Agency spacecraft caught up with it. It was a decade-long chase and we’ll have more news on the harpooning as we learn it, right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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