After 10 years and six billion kilometres, Europe’s Rosetta space probe is about to catch up with a comet.
Named 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko or 67P for short, the European Space Agency (ESA) has described the project as “their most fantastic mission ever”.
A final series of thruster firings should slow the craft down to walking pace to enable it to begin a triangular shaped orbit some 100 kilometres above the comet’s surface.
Previous missions have had fly-by brief encounters crossing a comets path.
By contrast, this time Rosetta will take a year orbiting the four kilometre wide object using its 11 instruments to scan and analyse.
Comets are made of ice, dust and rock and are left overs from the formation of the solar system. One theory is that they delivered water, carbon and other essential building blocks for life on Earth.
Rosetta is named after the Rosetta Stone, the engraved block crucial to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Scientists hope the 1.3 billion euro Rosetta project will offer important clues to how the solar system was formed.
If nothing goes wrong come November, mission managers will pick a spot for a tin-can shaped lander called Philae ( after the island in the Nile where the Rosetta stone was found) to touch down on the comet’s surface and gather samples.