Few things could be more fascinating or demanding in the history of European space travel than the Rosetta comet mission. Launched on 2 March 2004, the spacecraft set off on its 10-year journey to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko . Along the way, Rosetta has been performing a series of complex flight manoeuvres (passing Earth three times and Mars once), soaking up the 'momentum' it needed for its long journey. It also inspected asteroids Steins (September 2008) and Lutetia (July 2010) at close quarters, acquiring images while making extensive physical measurements.
The craft was switched to standby mode in July 2011 to complete the arduous journey to the comet. The reason for this was that the spacecraft's trajectory took it beyond Jupiter's orbit, a faraway spot almost 800 million kilometres from the Sun, where the solar arrays would have been unable to generate sufficient electricity for important functions. The craft will be 'woken up' again on 20 January 2014 once it is sufficiently close to its destination. At this time, Rosetta will be 9 million kilometres from 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, drawing ever nearer to it at a speed of 800 metres per second.
Piggybacking with a comet
Initially, Rosetta will enter orbit around the comet in May 2014, where it will conduct measurements and map the comet core in the greatest possible detail whilst searching for a suitable landing site. The lander, Philae, will separate from its parent craft on 11 November 2014, touch down on the comet and immediately fire harpoons to anchor itself on the surface. The two spacecraft will then accompany the comet on its month-long journey to the point at which it is closest to the Sun.
Eleven instruments on board the Rosetta orbiter and 10 on the Philae lander will analyse the composition of the cometary nucleus and examine the awakening process as the comet comes to life on the journey to its perihelion. The questions of whether the comet's surface is indeed in a kind of 'primordial state' and whether these bodies did bring prebiotic molecules and water to Earth, thereby playing a role in the emergence of life as we know it, are among those that the Rosetta mission is seeking to answer. Philae was developed and constructed by an international consortium under the leadership of the German Aerospace Center (DLR).