Rosetta probe ‘dances’ its way to a very active comet

Approaching a comet involves a series of rocket burns to slow the Rosetta spacecraft down so it can enter into orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The second major orbital burn is scheduled for today. Credit: ESA

The European probe Rosetta has been chasing comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for more than 10 years. This spring it’s finally catching up. But not so fast. To reach its target, the spacecraft must now slow down to match the comet’s speed. After such a long journey, it would be a shame if Rosetta overshot its objective.

Mission controllers are working this spring to throttle back the spacecraft’s speed by firing its rocket thrusters. On May 20, Rosetta did a burn for nearly 8 hours to reduce its speed relative to the comet by 650 mph (1,046 km). In space, rocket fire pushes against the spacecraft, slowing it down.

Close-up of comet 67P/C-G on 30 April 2014. The comet itself, buried inside the bright ‘nucleus’ seen in the photo is 2.5 miles across.Solar heating has vaporized ice and dust to create a fuzzy coma about 800 miles in diameter. Credit: ESA

A second burn is planned for today June 4 when Rosetta’s speed will be reduced by another 606 mph. More ‘delta-v’ burns ¬†(shorthand for ‘change in velocity’) through the end of July will gradually drop the distance between the two until the spacecraft achieves orbit. Each firing is part of a well-choreographed dance to bring them together.

“Upon arrival in early August, we should be at a 62-mile (100 km) distance and 2.25 mph (3.6 kph) relative velocity,” says Sylvain¬†Lodiot, Spacecraft Operations Manager.

Meanwhile, the comet is doing anything but twiddling its thumbs as the clock ticks toward August. 67P has gone from a tiny, inactive point of light to a classic fuzzy blob with a bullet-shaped coma or atmosphere now estimated at 808 miles (1,300 km) across. It’s looking like a real comet now as recent photos taken by Rosetta attest.

Artist conception of Rosetta mapping 67P from orbit starting in August. Credit: ESA

Amazing to think that the spacecraft will secure its orbit around Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August and then land a separate probe named ‘Philae’ on the surface later this fall. Can humans really do such things? Yes we can.

The Philae lander is expected to touch down on 67P on Nov. 11. It will anchor itself to the icy crust using harpoons. Credit: ESA

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

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