After a decadelong chase, Rosetta preps to tag a comet

The European spacecraft has been hunting down one particular comet at high speeds for several years. Now, after a long nap, its target is within sight.

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Rosetta is on track to launch a small lander that will hitch a ride on a comet. ESA

Since before the birth of either Facebook or YouTube, one spacecraft has been cruising through the solar system in search of what could be considered the ultimate hitchhiking adventure.

The European Space Agency's Rosetta originally launched in 2004 and spent a little time early on checking out nearby asteroids while gathering speed to be able to reach its ultimate target, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. As of this week, Rosetta finally spied the chunk of ice and space rock that it plans to board in the name of science. The ESA released this narrow angle view of Rosetta's target destination, circled in the image below:

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The view of its destination comet from Rosetta's OSIRIS camera rig. ESA

Actually, Rosetta herself won't be hitching a ride. But she does carry a small lander named Philae that is scheduled to land on the comet on November 11, drill itself into the Oort cloud native using ice screws and then hold on tight.

"Landing on the surface is the cherry on the icing on the cake for the Rosetta mission on top of all the great science that will be done by the orbiter in 2014 and 2015," said project scientist Matt Taylor in a release. "A good chunk of this year will be spent identifying where we will land, but also taking vital measurements of the comet before it becomes highly active. No one has ever attempted this before."

Rosetta had been in a long, energy-conserving hibernation, waking up in January to make its final approach on the comet. As part of the preparations for the cosmic rendezvous, Philae was also woken up this week and began successfully sending and receiving signals with mission control on Earth.

After traveling so many years and millions of miles, Philae is guaranteed only a few days of operation on the surface of the comet, if it manages to attach itself successfully. That's because it carries just 64-hours of battery life for taking initial high-resolution photos and drilling samples.

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A wide angle view of Rosetta's target. ESA

Philae also carries solar cells to recharge the batteries, allowing for extended operations on the comet, the duration of which will depend on the specific landing conditions and the accumulation of cometary dust on the cells.

Philae and the comet won't be alone for their journey around the sun, though, as Rosetta will remain alongside the pair for at least a year, providing the ultimate comet close-up.

Can't wait until they make this whole thing into an epic road trip movie. Quick, somebody call Scarlett Johannson's people to see if she can be the voice of Rosetta.

 

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