Rosetta awakens, readies for first-ever road trip with a comet

The European spacecraft finally sent a signal home after 31 months of hibernation. Now it prepares to meet up and ride along with a comet later this year.

Rosetta responded to a call to rise and shine on Monday. ESA

The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft wiped the deep space equivalent of eye gunk from its startrackers on Monday and awakened from a 31-month slumber to prepare for the coolest part of its long mission -- meeting up with and then attaching a probe to the surface of a comet as it cruises through our solar system.

Yes, it's basically the plot of that terrible movie "Armageddon," but on a harmless comet rather than an apocalyptic asteroid and with a charming robotic probe named Philae instead of Ben Affleck.

Originally launched in 2004, Rosetta spent years building up enough speed to reach its ultimate target, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and checking out a few asteroids along the way. In 2011 it went into a hibernation mode with an alarm clock of sorts in its computer set to go off on January 20, 2014. It became apparent hours after that wake up process that it had been a success when the first signals from Rosetta in two and a half years were confirmed by both ESA and NASA on Monday.

"All other comet missions have been flybys, capturing fleeting moments in the life of these icy treasure chests," Matt Taylor, ESA's Rosetta project scientist, said in a release. "With Rosetta, we will track the evolution of a comet on a daily basis and for over a year, giving us a unique insight into a comet's behaviour and ultimately helping us to decipher their role in the formation of the Solar System."

It's widely thought that comets can play an important part in the development of planets and may even have been the delivery source for getting water onto the surface of Earth.

Rosetta still has more than 5 million miles to travel before it reaches the comet in August, when it will begin mapping and measuring its new travel companion. This will also help to inform the ideal landing site for the Philae probe, which is currently scheduled to land and drill itself into the icy surface of the comet on November 11. Rosetta will then escort Philae and its new ride on its trip around the sun until at least the end of 2015.

Watch the scene of celebration below that took place at the ESA operations center in Germany when Rosetta's signal was finally confirmed by NASA. Stay tuned for more in what could be an historic road(less) trip of intrastellar proportions.

 

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