It’s been a long but exciting journey for Rosetta since its launch in 2004, featuring Earth, Mars and two asteroid flybys before arriving at its ultimate destination on 6 August 2014, ESA writes. Over the following months, the mission became the first ever to orbit a comet and the first to soft land a probe – Philae – on its surface.
Dust, gas and plasma
The mission teams have had to overcome many challenges in learning to fly in an unpredictable and sometimes inhospitable environment, and the spacecraft has returned a wealth of outstanding scientific data from this intriguing comet, spanning its interior, the dramatic surface and the surrounding cloud of dust, gas and plasma.
“This mission is about scientific discovery and every day there is something new to wonder at and try to understand,” says Nicolas Altobelli, acting Rosetta project scientist. “A year of observations near to the comet has provided us with a wealth of information about it, and we’re looking forward to another year of exploration.”
Highlights thus far have included the discovery that the comet’s water vapour has a different ‘flavour’ to Earth’s oceans, fuelling the debate on the possible role of comets and asteroids in delivering water to our planet in its early history.
How was the comet born?
The first detection of molecular nitrogen in a comet provided important clues about the temperature environment in which the comet was ‘born’. Molecular nitrogen was common when the Solar System was forming, but required very low temperatures to become trapped in ice, so Rosetta’s measurements support the theory that comets originate from the cold and distant Kuiper Belt.
Data collected by Rosetta and Philae during the lander’s descent to the surface have allowed scientists to deduce that the comet’s nucleus is non-magnetised, at least on large scales.
Although magnetic fields are thought to have played an important function in moving small, magnetised dust grains around in the infant Solar System, the Rosetta and Philae measurements show that they did not continue to play a significant role once the particles had agglomerated to form larger building blocks metres and tens of metres across.
Next week the perihelion!
These are just a few of the myriad examples of the scientific discoveries being made by Rosetta, and most of them come from data taken in the early part of the comet-phase activities.
Now the comet and spacecraft are a week from perihelion, the point on its 6.5-year orbit that takes it closest to the Sun. On 13 August, they will be 186 million kilometres from the Sun, about a third of the distance at rendezvous last August.
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