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Forum:Satellites - Robotic Probes
Topic:ESA's Rosetta probe and lander to Comet 67P
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Thirty-one months later, Rosetta's orbit has brought it back to within 'only' 673 million kilometres of the Sun, and there is finally enough solar energy to power the spacecraft fully again. It is time to wake up.

Rosetta's computer is programmed to carry out a sequence of events to re-establish contact with Earth on 20 January, starting with an 'alarm clock' at 10:00 GMT.

Immediately after, the spacecraft's startrackers will begin to warm up, taking around six hours.

Then its thrusters will fire to stop the slow rotation. A slight adjustment will be made to Rosetta's orientation to ensure that the solar arrays are still facing directly towards the Sun, before the startrackers are switched on to determine the spacecraft's attitude.

Once that has been established, Rosetta will turn directly towards Earth, switch on its transmitter and point its high-gain antenna to send its signal to announce that it is awake.

Because of Rosetta's vast distance — just over 807 million kilometres from Earth — it will take 45 minutes for the signal to reach the ground stations. The first opportunity for receiving a signal on Earth is expected between 17:30 GMT and 18:30 GMT (1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. CST).

Deep space tracking dishes will be listening out for the signal, starting with NASA's 'big ears' — the 70 m-diameter station at Goldstone, California, followed by, as the Earth rotates, the Canberra station in eastern Australia. ESA's New Norcia 35 m antenna, in Western Australia, would be next in line to await the signal's arrival.

Whenever the signal is received, it will be relayed immediately to ESOC, ESA's Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

This exciting moment will be announced to the world straightaway via the @ESA_Rosetta twitter account.

Once mission controllers have verified Rosetta's health, each of its scientific instruments will be switched back on and checked out, an effort that will take several months as the spacecraft continues to eat up the remaining 9 million kilometres separating it from the comet.

In May, Rosetta will make a major manoeuvre to line up for arriving at its target comet in August. If all goes well, it will become the first space mission to rendezvous with a comet, the first to attempt a landing, and the first to follow a comet as it swings around the Sun.

Comets are considered to be the primitive building blocks of the Solar System and likely helped to 'seed' Earth with water, and perhaps even the ingredients for life. But many fundamental questions about these enigmatic objects remain, and through its comprehensive, close-up study of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta aims to unlock the secrets within.

Robert PearlmanEuropean Space Agency release
ESA's 'sleeping beauty' wakes up from deep space hibernation

It was a fairy-tale ending to a tense chapter in the story of the Rosetta space mission this evening as ESA heard from its distant spacecraft for the first time in 31 months.

Rosetta is chasing down Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, where it will become the first space mission to rendezvous with a comet, the first to attempt a landing on a comet's surface, and the first to follow a comet as it swings around the Sun.

Since its launch in 2004, Rosetta has made three flybys of Earth and one of Mars to help it on course to its rendezvous with 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, encountering asteroids Steins and Lutetia along the way.

Operating on solar energy alone, Rosetta was placed into a deep space slumber in June 2011 as it cruised out to a distance of nearly 800 million km from the warmth of the Sun, beyond the orbit of Jupiter.

Now, as Rosetta's orbit has brought it back to within 'only' 673 million km from the Sun, there is enough solar energy to power the spacecraft fully again.

Thus today (Jan. 20), still about 6 million miles (9 million km) from the comet, Rosetta's pre-programmed internal 'alarm clock' woke up the spacecraft. After warming up its key navigation instruments, coming out of a stabilising spin, and aiming its main radio antenna at Earth, Rosetta sent a signal to let mission operators know it had survived the most distant part of its journey.

The signal was received by NASA's Goldstone ground station in California at (12:18 p.m. CST) 18:18 GMT, during the first window of opportunity the spacecraft had to communicate with Earth.

It was immediately confirmed in ESA's space operations centre in Darmstadt and the successful wake-up announced via the @ESA_Rosetta twitter account, which tweeted: "Hello, World!"

"We have our comet-chaser back," says Alvaro Giménez, ESA's Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. "With Rosetta, we will take comet exploration to a new level. This incredible mission continues our history of 'firsts' at comets, building on the technological and scientific achievements of our first deep space mission Giotto, which returned the first close-up images of a comet nucleus as it flew past Halley in 1986."

"This was one alarm clock not to hit snooze on, and after a tense day we are absolutely delighted to have our spacecraft awake and back online," adds Fred Jansen, ESA's Rosetta mission manager.

Comets are considered the primitive building blocks of the Solar System and likely helped to 'seed' Earth with water, perhaps even the ingredients for life. But many fundamental questions about these enigmatic objects remain, and through its comprehensive, in situ study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta aims to unlock the secrets contained within.

"All other comet missions have been flybys, capturing fleeting moments in the life of these icy treasure chests," says Matt Taylor, ESA's Rosetta project scientist. "With Rosetta, we will track the evolution of a comet on a daily basis and for over a year, giving us a unique insight into a comet's behaviour and ultimately helping us to decipher their role in the formation of the Solar System."

But first, essential health checks on the spacecraft must be completed. Then the eleven instruments on the orbiter and ten on the lander will be turned on and prepared for studying Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

"We have a busy few months ahead preparing the spacecraft and its instruments for the operational challenges demanded by a lengthy, close-up study of a comet that, until we get there, we know very little about," says Andrea Accomazzo, ESA's Rosetta operations manager.

Rosetta's first images of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko are expected in May, when the spacecraft is still 2 million km from its target. Towards the end of May, the spacecraft will execute a major manoeuvre to line up for its critical rendezvous with the comet in August.

After rendezvous, Rosetta will start with two months of extensive mapping of the comet's surface, and will also make important measurements of the comet's gravity, mass and shape, and assess its gaseous, dust-laden atmosphere, or coma. The orbiter will also probe the plasma environment and analyse how it interacts with the Sun's outer atmosphere, the solar wind.

Using these data, scientists will choose a landing site for the mission's 100 kg Philae probe. The landing is currently scheduled for 11 November and will be the first time that a landing on a comet has ever been attempted.

In fact, given the almost negligible gravity of the comet's 4 km-wide nucleus, Philae will have to use ice screws and harpoons to stop it from rebounding back into space after touchdown.

Among its wide range of scientific measurements, Philae will send back a panorama of its surroundings, as well as very high-resolution pictures of the surface. It will also perform an on-the-spot analysis of the composition of the ices and organic material, including drilling down to 23 cm below the surface and feeding samples to Philae's on-board laboratory for analysis.

The focus of the mission will then move to the 'escort' phase, during which Rosetta will stay alongside the comet as it moves closer to the Sun, monitoring the ever-changing conditions on the surface as the comet warms up and its ices sublimate.

The comet will reach its closest distance to the Sun on 13 August 2015 at about 185 million km, roughly between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Rosetta will follow the comet throughout the remainder of 2015, as it heads away from the Sun and activity begins to subside.

"We will face many challenges this year as we explore the unknown territory of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and I'm sure there will be plenty of surprises, but today we are just extremely happy to be back on speaking terms with our spacecraft," adds Matt Taylor.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA Instruments Begin Science on European Spacecraft Set to Land on Comet

Three NASA science instruments aboard the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft, which is set to become the first to orbit a comet and land a probe on its nucleus, are beginning observations and sending science data back to Earth.

Launched in March 2004, Rosetta was reactivated January 2014 after a record 957 days in hibernation. Composed of an orbiter and lander, Rosetta's objective is to arrive at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August to study the celestial object up close in unprecedented detail and prepare for landing a probe on the comet's nucleus in November.

Rosetta's lander will obtain the first images taken from a comet's surface and will provide the first analysis of a comet's composition by drilling into the surface. Rosetta also will be the first spacecraft to witness at close proximity how a comet changes as it is subjected to the increasing intensity of the sun's radiation. Observations will help scientists learn more about the origin and evolution of our solar system and the role comets may have played in seeding Earth with water, and perhaps even life.

"We are happy to be seeing some real zeroes and ones coming down from our instruments, and cannot wait to figure out what they are telling us," said Claudia Alexander, Rosetta's U.S. project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "Never before has a spacecraft pulled up and parked next to a comet. That is what Rosetta will do, and we are delighted to play a part in such a historic mission of exploration."

Rosetta currently is approaching the main asteroid belt located between Jupiter and Mars,. The spacecraft is still about 300,000 miles (500,000 kilometers) from the comet, but in August the instruments will begin to map its surface.

The three U.S. instruments aboard the spacecraft are the Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter (MIRO), an ultraviolet spectrometer called Alice, and the Ion and Electron Sensor (IES). They are part of a suite of 11 science instruments aboard the Rosetta orbiter.

MIRO is designed to provide data on how gas and dust leave the surface of the nucleus to form the coma and tail that gives comets their intrinsic beauty. Studying the surface temperature and evolution of the coma and tail provides information on how the comet evolves as it approaches and leaves the vicinity of the sun.

Alice will analyze gases in the comet's coma, which is the bright envelope of gas around the nucleus of the comet developed as a comet approaches the sun. Alice also will measure the rate at which the comet produces water, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. These measurements will provide valuable information about the surface composition of the nucleus.

The instrument also will measure the amount of argon present, an important clue about the temperature of the solar system at the time the comet's nucleus originally formed more than 4.6 billion years ago.

IES is part of a suite of five instruments to analyze the plasma environment of the comet, particularly the coma. The instrument will measure the charged particles in the sun's outer atmosphere, or solar wind, as they interact with the gas flowing out from the comet while Rosetta is drawing nearer to the comet's nucleus.

NASA also provided part of the electronics package for the Double Focusing Mass Spectrometer, which is part of the Swiss-built Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis (ROSINA) instrument. ROSINA will be the first instrument in space with sufficient resolution to be able to distinguish between molecular nitrogen and carbon monoxide, two molecules with approximately the same mass. Clear identification of nitrogen will help scientists understand conditions at the time the solar system was formed.

U.S. scientists are partnering on several non-U.S. instruments and are involved in seven of the mission's 21 instrument collaborations. NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) is supporting ESA's Ground Station Network for spacecraft tracking and navigation.

Robert PearlmanEuropean Space Agency Rosetta Blog
The dual personality of comet 67P/C-G

This week's images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko reveal an extraordinarily irregular shape. We had hints of that in last week's images and in the unscheduled previews that were seen a few days ago, and in that short time it has become clear that this is no ordinary comet. Like its name, it seems that comet 67P/C-G is in two parts.

What the spacecraft is actually seeing is the pixelated image shown below, which was taken by Rosetta's OSIRIS narrow angle camera on 14 July from a distance of 12 000 km.

A second image and a movie show the comet after the image has been processed. The technique used, called "sub-sampling by interpolation", only acts to remove the pixelisation and make a smoother image, and it is important to note that the comet's surface features won't be as smooth as the processing implies. The surface texture has yet to be resolved simply because we are still too far away; any apparent brighter or darker regions may turn out to be false interpretations at this early stage.

But the movie, which uses a sequence of 36 interpolated images each separated by 20 minutes, certainly provides a truly stunning 360-degree preview of the overall complex shape of the comet. Regardless of surface texture, we can certainly see an irregular shaped world shining through. Indeed, some people have already likened the shape to a duck, with a distinct body and head.

Although less obvious in the 'real' image, the movie of interpolated images supports the presence of two definite components. One segment seems to be rather elongated, while the other appears more bulbous.

Dual objects like this – known as 'contact binaries' in comet and asteroid terminology – are not uncommon.

Indeed, comet 8P/Tuttle is thought to be such a contact binary; radio imaging by the ground-based Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico in 2008 suggested that it comprises two sphere-like objects. Meanwhile, the bone-shaped comet 103P/Hartley 2, imaged during NASA's EPOXI flyby in 2011, revealed a comet with two distinct halves separated by a smooth region. In addition, observations of asteroid 25143 Itokawa by JAXA's Hayabusa mission, combined with ground-based data, suggest an asteroid comprising two sections of highly contrasting densities.

Is Rosetta en-route to rendezvous with a similar breed of comet? The scientific rewards of studying such a comet would be high, as a number of possibilities exist as to how they form.

One popular theory is that such an object could arise when two comets – even two compositionally distinct comets – melded together under a low velocity collision during the Solar System's formation billions of years ago, when small building blocks of rocky and icy debris coalesced to eventually create planets. Perhaps comet 67P/C-G will provide a unique record of the physical processes of accretion.

Or maybe it is the other way around – that is, a single comet could be tugged into a curious shape by the strong gravitational pull of a large object like Jupiter or the Sun; after all, comets are rubble piles with weak internal strength as directly witnessed in the fragmentation of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 and the subsequent impacts into Jupiter, 20 years ago this week. Perhaps the two parts of comet 67P/C-G will one day separate completely.

On the other hand, perhaps comet 67P/C-G may have once been a much rounder object that became highly asymmetric thanks to ice evaporation. This could have happened when the comet first entered the Solar System from the Kuiper Belt, or on subsequent orbits around the Sun.

One could also speculate that the striking dichotomy of the comet's morphology is the result of a near catastrophic impact event that ripped out one side of the comet. Similarly, it is not unreasonable to think that a large outburst event may have weakened one side of the comet so much that it simply gave away, crumbling into space.

But, while the interpolated images are certainly brilliant, we need to be closer still to see a better three-dimensional view – not to mention to perform a spectroscopic analysis to determine the comet's composition – in order to draw robust scientific conclusions about this exciting comet.

Rosetta Mission Manager Fred Jansen comments: "We currently see images that suggest a rather complex cometary shape, but there is still a lot that we need to learn before jumping to conclusions. Not only in terms of what this means for comet science in general, but also regarding our planning for science observations, and the operational aspects of the mission such as orbiting and landing.

"We will need to perform detailed analyses and modelling of the shape of the comet to determine how best we can fly around such a uniquely shaped body, taking into account flight control and astrodynamics, the science requirements of the mission, and the landing-related elements like landing site analysis and lander-to-orbiter visibility. But, with fewer than 10 000 km to go before the 6 August rendezvous, our open questions will soon be answered."

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