Millions of kilometers from Earth, history was made recently when a spacecraft successfully landed a probe on the surface of a speeding comet.
Remnants from the solar system’s formation about 4.5 billion years ago, comets are time capsules containing valuable information about planetary development. Due to their icy structure, scientists suspect that impact from comets could have been the source of water on Earth, and studies of their structural components could potentially answer innumerable questions about the universe and the origin of life on Earth. Having been observed by astronomers and space crafts from a distance due to weak gravitational forces and unstable surfaces, especially when the ice melts near the Sun, this treasure trove of information has mostly been locked away. This is why the European Space Agency’s (ESA) successful launch of the spacecraft Rosetta into comet 67P’s orbit, and launching its lander onto the surface is a landmark in space exploration.
Rosetta is a robotic space probe, containing a lander module named Philae and an orbiter, with a mission to orbit 67P and study its surface components. The ESA had previously launched a spacecraft, Giotto, to study the nucleus of Halley’s Comet from a distance. But this time, they have executed a successful maneuver that will set the precedent for similar space exploration missions.
Launched in 2004, the gravitational force of the Earth was used to slingshot Rosetta around Earth and Mars before it could catch up with Comet 67P. Rosetta carries on board mass-spectrometers, plasma sensors, spectrographs and microscopes to characterize the comet’s nucleus and observe it as it approaches the Sun. Additionally, fitted with customized engineering to ensure a landing in the comet’s weak gravitational atmosphere, the lander is armed with drills, instruments and cameras to capture the isotopic, molecular and structure properties of 67P—significant data that it has already relayed to Rosetta.
The successful launch of Rosetta, 10 years after its departure from Earth, into 67P’s orbit and the Philae landing have bolstered other space agencies onto projects that could involve landing on other unexplored objects in the Solar System, rather than just being observers from a distance. NASA has begun constructing a spacecraft scheduled to land on an asteroid to collect dust samples, learn about its composition, and subsequently explore different ways of executing an impact mitigation mission.
Elsewhere, other space agencies are targeting the moons of Jupiter, such as Europa, which are believed to have crusts covering oceans. Some are also focusing on a Mars mission, which will carry innovative instruments to detect microbial life on the red planet. Bolstered by Rosetta’s success, which showcases that daring landing missions to other extraterrestrial bodies could be successful—the future of space technology now relies on innovation fuelled by audacity.
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