WASHINGTON — On Valentine’s Day, at 7:41 a.m. EST, the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully maneuvered its Rosetta spacecraft to a six kilometer close flyby of the periodic Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
The spacecraft passed over the larger lobe of the twin-lobed comet, known as Comet 67P for short, specifically the Imhotep region.
The flyby is Rosetta’s closest approach to the comet, and will collect scientific data and take an amazing collection of photographs that should be available to the world on Monday. I can hardly wait for the detail on these pictures; what we have seen so far have been better than any science fiction depiction of a comet’s surface.
Rosetta was launched in March 2004. It made three flybys of Earth and one of Mars to pick up enough speed to intercept Comet 67P last August. It entered into orbit around the comet. Its Philae lander detached, landed on the surface of the comet last November, and endeared itself to humanity with tweets and scientific feats of discovery.
Rosetta will give us our best view and data ever of a comet, a leftover from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. Comets contain the original material of our solar system — the elements, molecules, gas, dust and ices that weren’t used in making or dwarfing planets.
What sets Rosetta apart from previous cometary missions of the past? For the first time, we will orbit a comet and land on it instead of a one-and-done flyby mission. What’s really thrilling to me is that we’ll have an up close and personal view of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko transforming from an inert icy dirt ball into a full fledged active comet spewing off gas and dust due to the intense heat of the sun.
As the Rosetta mission progresses, we’ll see how the comet changes as it approaches the sun, begins to heat up, passes closest to the sun in August, then begins to shut down as it zooms away. An array of instruments are on the orbiter and lander, including three from NASA that are gathering a treasure trove of never-before-acquired data and pictures during the critical stages in the life cycle of a comet’s journey around the sun.
Already, Rosetta has rekindled the debate about comets being the source of water for Earth’s oceans. Rosetta’s analysis of the water vapor coming from Comet 67P did not match that of the water in Earth’s oceans. It now seems likely that asteroids were the source of the water in our Earth’s oceans. The upcoming rendezvous of NASA’s Dawn Mission with the dwarf planet Ceres in the asteroid belt may provide more answers.
There are over a trillion comets and millions of their believed-to-be siblings — asteroids — in the solar system. The more we learn about them, the more we learn about our origins. It’s possible that comets and asteroids seeded the primitive Earth with the necessary precursors for life.
We know that comets and asteroids have impacted the Earth in the past and will do so again in the future. So anything we can learn about them is beneficial — not only for science, but survival as well.
You can follow Rosetta via @ESA_Rosetta on Twitter.
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