UK scientists countdown to launch of Europe's comet chaser mission


In a week's time the European Space Agency's pioneering Rosetta mission will begin its 12-year expedition to orbit and land on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This is one of the most ambitious and complex robotic space projects ever undertaken and the UK has made a significant contribution to the scientific instruments on the orbiter and lander.

Following the launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou in French Guiana on 26th February (0736 GMT) the spacecraft will make 3 flybys of Earth and one of Mars before reaching the comet in 2014. For much of its journey the spacecraft will be placed in hibernation mode to limit power and fuel consumption. There will be some science observations taking place on the journey and crucially on approach to the comet the onboard camera will provide images which will help improve calculations of the comet's position, orbit, size and shape.

Once in the comet's vicinity around May 2014 the spacecraft will edge closer to the nucleus, as the comet moves towards the sun, before deploying the Philae lander in November 2014. Once on the surface of the comet a whole range of scientific experiments will be conducted in situ with the 10 instruments on board.

As the oldest and most primitive bodies in the solar system comets provide the key to unlocking the secrets of the Universe. Comets have remained unchanged in comparison to other bodies within our solar system and provide the earliest record of materials in a pristine form. In addition comets brought "volatile" light elements to the planets and played an important role in forming oceans and atmospheres. They are also space "carriers" of complex organic molecules that may have been involved in the origin of life on Earth.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council [PPARC] have funded the development and construction of two key instruments: the Ptolemy experiment on the Rosetta lander [Open University and CCLRC-Rutherford Appleton Laboratory] and the Plasma Interface Unit [PIU, Imperial College, London] built for the Rosetta Plasma Consortium instrument package on the orbiter.

Commenting on the mission and the UK scientific involvement Prof. Ian Halliday, PPARC Chief Executive, said," This mission will turn science fiction into science fact. Every aspect of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko will be analysed, resulting in the most comprehensive set of scientific measurements ever obtained of a comet - and the UK can be justly proud of the significant part it has played".

He adds, "This ground-breaking mission benefits from considerable involvement by talented scientists from several UK universities. Their contribution endorses the UK's world-leading expertise in the development of technologies needed for planetary landers and miniaturised instrumentation for space missions".

Dr Ian Wright from the Open University is Principal Investigator on PTOLEMY instrument. The size of a shoe box PTOLEMY will analyse samples from the surface of the comet.

He explains "Ptolemy will analyse the nature and distribution of the most important cometary surface materials. From samples of ices extracted by drilling and coring, Ptolemy will use a variety of chemical processing techniques to reduce the samples to their constituent parts, making key measurements of molecules such as water, carbon, monoxide, carbon dioxide and organic compounds."

He adds, "The overall experiment is based around a coupled gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer - together these will determine the abundance and stable isotopic compositions of elements such as hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. The study of these biologically important elements is strongly implicated in humankind's quest to understand the origin of life on Earth".

Dr. Chris Carr from Imperial College is Principal Investigator for the Rosetta Plasma Consortium. "We are extremely pleased to be playing a major role in the Plasma Consortium on Rosetta. The consortium is an international team involving instrumentation from the US, France, Germany, Sweden and the UK, and the whole team has worked really well together to get the instruments ready for launch. Understanding how the comet interacts with the solar wind is a very important part of the Rosetta science objectives, and an area in which the UK is particularly strong. We're really looking forward to some great new results from this mission."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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