UK & World News

  • 6 August 2014, 12:59

Rosetta Probe Catches Comet After 10 Years

A probe launched in 2004 to chase a comet billions of miles around space has today made contact with Earth after reaching its target.

The European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta travelled four billion miles across the asteroid belt to track down 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

It is the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet and will now follow the rock around the Sun before deploying a lander to its surface.

"We're at the comet," declared Rosetta's flight operations manager, Sylvain Lodiot.

Scientists expect to receive images from the craft today.

Both the comet and the probe are now travelling around the Sun at about 34,175mph (54,999kph).

The craft was launched in March 2004 and completed the latest phase of its mission by moving within 62 miles (100km) of the comet.

"It makes 2014 the year of Rosetta," said ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain as he heard that mission had been accomplished.

"Rosetta is a unique mission, unique by its scientific goal. Understanding our origins is certainly the best way to understand our future."

In the last few days, Rosetta has captured images of the strange comet that have already thrown up some surprises for scientists.

Professor Monica Grady helped to build instruments on board the probe, and said: "When we started this mission, we assumed that the comet was spherical like a football but as we've got closer and closer we saw that, 'hang on a minute', it's shaped like a duck."

In November, Rosetta will deploy a small robotic lander, Philae, which will steer itself to the comet's surface.

It will do this by shooting harpoons into the 2.5-mile icy dirtball before the lander docks on the surface - a move never attempted before.

The lander will conduct the first in-situ analysis of a comet's composition.

The Philae probe and its orbiter will study the plume of gas and water vapour that will boil off and trail behind as the comet nears the Sun.

If the chemical signature of hydrogen matches that found in water on Earth, it will strongly suggest comets filled the oceans when they smashed into the planet billions of years ago.

Sky's Health and Science Correspondent Thomas Moore said: "Somewhere between Mars and Jupiter they've hit the bullseye - an extraordinary achievement given that this rock is just two miles across.

"The Europeans did it - Nasa didn't.

"They hope it will tell the story of the first millions of years of Earth's history."