Rosetta Coming in for Landing

For the last 10 years the Rosetta spacecraft has been speeding across the solar system in order to attempt a first for humanities space exploration. The craft is preparing to rendezvous with the comet 67P (Churyumov-Gerasimenko) with a schedule of landing on the 11th November 2014. Today ESA released on which proposed landing site the craft will touchdown. The comet itself is around 4km across and was previously thought to be a couple of coalescing comets due to its unusual shape. However as Rosetta has drawn closely and began imaging after her widely publicised “wake up” on the 20th January, it has become more clear that this comet appears to be one rock in a “rubber-duck” shape.

Although none of the 5 potential sites are completely deemed ideal by ESA to make a confident landing, it was decided today that site “J” which is located on the smaller head of the “duck” will be the primary landing spot. This offers ESA the possibility of a 70 to 75% success rate at what is thought to be the most challenging space landing in exploration history.

An image taken of 67P by the Rosetta spacecraft on the 3rd August 2014

As well as the obvious excitement of overcoming such a monumental task of landing on an object travelling at just over 36,000mph which is only 4km across, with an uneven landing site, the Rosetta mission holds greater interest. The question of where life came from has always been one which has puzzled the great thinkers over the ages. One of the most widely believed theories is that the chemicals for life or life itself may have originated from outer space and arrived on comets like 67P. In fact it is thought that over the timescale of the first billion years of Earth’s history that the onslaught of comets may have actually given rise to all the water found in the oceans. If Rosetta detects the signatures of life on the comet this will have important implications on the important question of life’s origins.

For those less familiar with comets you may wonder why comets would transfer water? Although comets have sometimes been portrayed in films as rocky objects they are primarily formed from ice which is in fact what produces their beautiful tails. As they approach the sun then the ice evaporates of the back side of the comet producing this wonderful tail which is beautiful to see in a telescope or image. Below is an image taken using the University of Birmingham’s Observatory which I was involved in. This image shows the comet ISON (before it’s unfortunate demise) which displays the lovely tail of the comet.

An image of comet ISON taken by myself and colleagues at the University of Birmingham Observatory

The hope now is that Rosetta has a safe landing this November to bring us closer to the possibility of finding the origins of life. To get the public involved with the mission ESA will also be releasing details of a competition to give site “J” a more catchy name! I will post more on this story when they release more… watch this space!

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