Editor's update for Aug. 6: The European Rosetta spacecraft successfully arrived at its comet target on Wednesday, Aug. 6. For our latest story on the historic arrival, visit: Europe's Rosetta Spacecraft Makes Historic Arrival at Comet.
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.
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