Rosetta hits ‘mile­stone’ in comet’s run past the sun

The China Post - - LIFE -

The Euro­pean space probe Rosetta cap­tured a range of sci­en­tific data Thurs­day as it trailed an an­cient comet past the sun which could help sci­en­tists bet­ter un­der­stand the ori­gins of life on Earth.

Dur­ing its run be­fore the sun the probe col­lected par­ti­cles and gas put off by the comet 67P/Churyu­movGerasi­menko as it de­liv­ered a so­lar heat-driven fire­works show of gas jets and shed about a tonne of dust per sec­ond.

The sam­ples as well as im­ages Rosetta took of the comet as it came within 186 mil­lion kilo­me­ters of the sun at about 0200 GMT will be an­a­lyzed in the com­ing weeks and months, the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA) said.

“It’s re­ally a fan­tas­tic mile­stone that has been achieved by Rosetta to­day,” Ni­cola Al­to­belli, act­ing Rosetta Pro­ject sci­en­tist, said dur­ing a online pre­sen­ta­tion mark­ing the oc­ca­sion.

“Be­yond the ob­vi­ous sci­en­tific achieve­ment, it was also tech­ni­cally a mas­ter­piece in space en­gi­neer­ing,” he added.

How­ever, pro­ject sci­en­tists said the wash­ing ma­chine-sized lan­der Phi­lae — sent to 67P’s sur­face last Novem­ber — re­mains in­com­mu­ni­cado, with some of its equip­ment not work­ing prop­erly any longer.

Ex­perts, how­ever, sounded a hope­ful note that the lan­der could wake up again and trans­mit sci­en­tific data as well as im­ages from the sur­face of the comet to Rosetta.

Pic­tures taken from Rosetta’s nav­i­ga­tion cam­era showed that 67P was “very ac­tive” as its sur­face was buf­feted by so­lar wind and heat, said Syl­vian Lo­diot, the engi­neer in charge of the space­craft at ESA’s Euro­pean Space Oper­a­tions Cen­tre in Ger­many.

“There are jets of gas and dust just about ev­ery­where,” he told AFP.

Rosetta, which con­tin­ues to shadow the comet on its 6.5-year or­bit around the sun, “is work­ing per­fectly,” he added.

Dur­ing the 67P’s so­lar swingby, Rosetta re­treated to a safe dis­tance of 330 kilo­me­ters to pro­tect its star tracker nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem from the de­bris.

The comet is made up of min­er­als, ice and — most crit­i­cally for sci­en­tists — or­ganic mol­e­cules that may have been sim­i­lar to the pre­cur­sors that kick-started life in Earth’s early oceans.

“In look­ing at this comet — a step in that process of un­der­stand­ing — we are try­ing to un­der­stand why our sys­tem turned out the way it did, why Earth had sta­ble wa­ter, and the in­gre­di­ents that led to what we are to­day, that is a planet of liv­ing be­ings,” as­tro­physi­cist Jean-Pierre Bib­ring of the In­sti­tute of Space As­tro­physics told ra­dio France In­ter on Thurs­day.

Sci­en­tists hope the heat of per­i­he­lion — when the comet comes clos­est to the sun in its or­bit — will have caused the life­less voy­ager to shed a sig­nif­i­cant layer of its icy crust.

If so, it will dis­gorge some of these pris­tine par­ti­cles left from the so­lar sys­tem’s birth about 4.6 bil­lion years ago.

Yet it is not clear if the lan­der Phi­lae will help un­ravel the mys­tery.

“We have not heard from Phi­lae in more than a month and that is quite wor­ry­ing,” Bar­bara Coz­zoni, a lan­der engi­neer, said dur­ing the online pre­sen­ta­tion.

The lan­der, which runs on so­lar power, has the energy it needs to op­er­ate through Oc­to­ber, but af­ter that days will start get­ting shorter and the ro­bot lab could run short of power.

AFP

This se­ries of hand­out pic­tures cap­tured by Euro­pean space probe Rosetta’s OSIRIS nar­row-an­gle cam­era on Wed­nes­day, Aug. 12 and re­leased on Thurs­day, Aug. 13 by the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA) shows Comet 67P/Churyu­mov-Gerasi­menko, with the im­age at left taken at 14:07 GMT, the mid­dle im­age at 17:35 GMT, and the fi­nal im­age at 23:31 GMT, just a few hours be­fore the comet reached the clos­est point to the sun along its 6.5-year or­bit, or per­i­he­lion. The im­ages were taken from a dis­tance of about 330 kilo­me­ters from the comet. The comet’s ac­tiv­ity, at its peak in­ten­sity around per­i­he­lion and in the weeks that fol­low, is clearly vis­i­ble in these spec­tac­u­lar im­ages. In par­tic­u­lar, a sig­nif­i­cant out­burst can be seen in the im­age cap­tured at 17:35 GMT.

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