The Rosetta mission – breaking ground in space research

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 'woke up' again on 20 January 2014. At this time, Rosetta was 9 million kilometres from 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, drawing ever nearer to it at a speed of 800 metres per second.

Piggybacking with a comet

Rosetta entered orbit around the comet in May 2014, where it conducted measurements and mapped the comet core in the greatest possible detail whilst searching for a suitable landing site. The lander, Philae, separated from its parent craft on 12 November 2014. Upon its first contact with the comet’s surface, Philae bounced because the harpoons intended to anchor it as it touched down failed to deploy. Philae landed a total of three times, finally coming to rest on the surface at 18:32 CET and immediately starting to conduct measurements. He entered sleep mode at 01:36 CET on 15 November 2014. The two spacecraft will now accompany the comet on its month-long journey to the point at which it is closest to the Sun.

On 13 June 2015 at 22:28 CEST, the Philae lander awoke from hibernation and sent data back to Earth. The contact lasted 85 seconds. During this time, Philae sent more than 300 data packets - more than 8000 data packets are still in the lander’s mass memory.

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).

Last modified: 09/07/2015 09:48:01

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Dr.rer.nat. Ekkehard Kührt
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

Institute of Planetary Research, Asteroids and Comets

Tel.: +49 30 67055-514

Fax: +49 30 67055-340
Elke Heinemann
Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) - German Aerospace Center

Tel.: +49 2203 601-2867

Fax: +49 2203 601-3249
Dr Stephan Ulamec
German Aerospace Center (DLR)

Microgravity User Support Center (MUSC), Space Operations and Astronaut Training

Tel.: +49 2203 601-4567

The Rosetta spacecraft in the depths of the Solar system

Die Raumsonde Rosetta in den Tiefen des Sonnensystems

Rosetta has travelled a distance of about seven billion kilometres. (Frame from 'Chasing A Comet – The Rosetta Mission'.)

The target – comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Ziel der langen Reise: der Komet Churyumov%2dGerasimenko

The comet, which was discovered in 1969, has a diameter (nucleus) of four kilometres. (Frame from 'Chasing A Comet – The Rosetta Mission'.)

The Philae lander on board the European Rosetta spacecraft

Der Lander Philae an Bord der europäischen Sonde Rosetta

Since its launch in 2004, Rosetta has been 'protecting' the small Philae lander from all the harsh conditions encountered in interplanetary space. (Frame from 'Chasing A Comet – The Rosetta Mission'.)

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