After 10 years in space, the Rosetta spacecraft closes in on its cometary prey. Rosetta will go into orbit near the nucleus of comet 67p/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The probe is carrying a small lander designed to settle on the comet nucleus, take samples and conduct experiments.
Rosetta is the first mission designed to both orbit a comet and deposit a lander on its surface. Part of Rosetta’s mission is to catalog the elements and molecules that exist in the comet’s dust. A previous sample-return mission to a different comet found particles of organic matter that are the building blocks of life. [Photos: Europe's Rosetta Comet Mission in Pictures]
The lander was named after Philae Island in the Nile River. A comet nucleus has very low gravity, so the lander relies on harpoons and ice screws to secure itself to the surface.
Rosetta took a winding path through the solar system, performing slingshot maneuvers past the Earth and Mars to use those planets’ gravity for a speed boost. The probe examined two asteroids – Steins and Lutetia – before closing in on its primary prey, the comet known as 67p/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.