As we have seen on the news, the Philae Lander Spacecraft from ESA’s Rosetta Mission landed on a comet on November 12. Rosetta will be undertaking several ‘firsts’ in space exploration. It will be the first mission to orbit and land on a comet. That makes Rosetta one of the most complex and ambitious missions ever undertaken. It will also be the first spacecraft to witness, at close proximity, how a comet changes as it approaches the increasing intensity of the Sun’s radiation and the first to investigate a comet’s nucleus and environment over an extended period of time.
But why is this mission called Rosetta and what is it’s link to etched stone?
The mission is named after the Rosetta Stone, a slab of volcanic basalt found near the Egyptian town of Rashid (Rosetta) in 1799. The stone revolutionized our understanding of the past. By comparing the three carved inscriptions on the stone (written in two forms of Egyptian and Greek), historians were able to decipher the mysterious hieroglyphics – the written language of ancient Egypt. As a result of this breakthrough, scholars were able to piece together the history of a lost culture.
The Rosetta Stone provided the key to an ancient civilization. ESA’s Rosetta mission will allow scientists to unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our Solar System: comets.
Rosetta’s prime objective is to help understand the origin and evolution of the Solar System. The comet’s composition reflects the composition of the pre-solar nebula out of which the Sun and the planets of the Solar System formed, more than 4.6 billion years ago. Therefore, an in-depth analysis of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by Rosetta and its lander will provide essential information to understand how the Solar System formed.
There is convincing evidence that comets played a key role in the evolution of the planets, because cometary impacts are known to have been much more common in the early Solar System than today. Comets, for example, probably brought much of the water in today’s oceans. They could even have provided the complex organic molecules that may have played a crucial role in the evolution of life on Earth.
Rosetta’s planned lifetime is about 12 years. The nominal mission ends in December 2015, after the comet reaches its closest point to the Sun (in August 2015) and starts heading back towards the outer Solar System.
For more information on this incredible mission, visit the ESA website.