It’s the moment space scientists have been waiting for for nearly a decade.
If all goes to plan, the Rosetta spacecraft, launched nearly ten years ago, should awake from its slumber and land on the distant 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet on Monday.
Conceived in 1993, the mission is aimed at studying comets – their origin, their composition, and what they say about the formation of the Solar System.
Rosetta is now 800 million kilometers away. The lack of sunlight to power all but the essentials in deep space means it has been in temporary hibernation since 2011.
On Monday, scientists will be watching out for Rosetta’s weak signal that’s expected to take 45 minutes to reach Earth.
“We have a very tiny time window to pick up this signal and to command the spacecraft into its next configuration – this is our challenge for the hibernation exit,” says Rosetta Operations Manager, Andrea Accomazzo.
Once Rosetta comes out of hibernation, its 21 instruments will also wake up. No comet has ever been studied as closely as Rosetta will attempt to in the coming 12 months.
“After a few weeks, we will be at a distance that will allow one of the most powerful telescopes we have on board to detect the comet. This detection is very important because it will allow us to target our manoeuvres in the right direction,” says Paolo Ferri, head of Interplanetary Mission Operations at ESOC, ESA.
The spacecraft is expected to reach the comet by August. It will then orbit the comet, mapping its surface and studying its activity.
By the end of the year, Rosetta should become the first mission to land on a comet, when its lander Philae makes a controlled descent towards the surface. By drilling into the comet, it will carry out an on-site analysis of its composition, in a bid to better understand the origin and evolution of the Solar System.