Four years ago, the European Space Agency (ESA) achieved something that seemed impossible. It caught a comet. It was an idea first conceived in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until some 30 years later that, in March 2004, scientists from across the continent launched Rosetta on a decade-long journey. Over the next four years, the spacecraft would swing around Mars, and then Earth three times, before stopping in deep space just beyond Jupiter. There Rosetta waited, in deep hibernation, for its rendez-vous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Then in 2014, ESA woke Rosetta from its slumber and sent it chasing after 67P. Eventually, in a manoeuvre that would make Evel Knievel blush, Rosetta’s lander, Philae, bounced down onto the surface of 67P, discovering that it was unlike anything on Earth. The data it gathered, much of which has surprised scientists, is being pored over today.
By September 2016, Rosetta had travelled 3.6 times further away from the Sun than the Earth is, and the craft was starting to find it difficult to harvest sufficient solar energy. ESA crashed Rosetta into the slab of rubble and ice it had spent 10 years chasing.
Now NASA and JAXA (the Japanese space agency) want to show what they can do. The two agencies have conjured up daring missions to capture and return a sample of an asteroid. Both want answers to questions: did asteroids deliver the materials needed to light the spark of life on Earth? And how could we divert an asteroid that could end life as we know it? Find out how they’ll get their answers on p40.
PS – We’re heading to the brilliant Bluedot Festival over 21-22 July. If you spot me, come and say hi! Daniel Bennett, Editor