May 9, 2018

DLR exhibition 'Comets – the Rosetta mission' opens in Vienna

  • The exhibition is located at the Natural History Museum in Vienna and runs from 9 May to 12 September
  • Interested persons can also take a virtual tour of the exhibition online
  • Focus: Space

Until 12 September 2018 in the National History Museum / online virtual tour of the exhibition also possible

The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is presenting the special exhibition 'Comets – the Rosetta mission: Journey to the origins of the Solar System', hosted at the Natural History Museum in Vienna from 9 May 2018. The Rosetta mission is one of the most complex European space projects ever undertaken. It came to an end two years ago. The exhibition traces the human fascination with comets, and the particularly enthralling aspects of the mission with all its stages and insights.

"The mission is a milestone in the research into these extraordinary celestial bodies, which appear in unpredictable places in the inner Solar System," explains Walther Pelzer, Executive Board Member for the The German Space Agency at DLR. "They are witnesses to the birth of the planets 4.5 billion years ago." Curated by DLR in cooperation with the Max Planck Society, the exhibition showcases what makes comets so fascinating, and above all why they are so significant for science.

Visitors to the exhibition – which runs until 12 September – can view numerous exhibits tracing the history of cometary research, as well as the planning, preparation and course of the Rosetta mission, with a particular focus on texts and images outlining its results. Also featured are a 1:4 scale model of the Rosetta spacecraft and one of the Philae lander, along with a number of instruments in full scale. The main attraction is an approximately 4.3 by 2.6 metre replica of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko with all the details of its topology at a scale of 1:1000 – an outline of Vienna’s city centre is include to demonstrate the relative sizes. Premiered in 2016/17 at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, the exhibition attracted over 700,000 visitors.

Rosetta and Philae – already cult objects in the history of space exploration

Pelzer continues: "We are delighted to have updated the exhibition in cooperation with the Natural History Museum in Vienna, and have the opportunity to present its attractions at one of the most significant museums of its kind in the German-speaking world. The Rosetta comet mission literally kept Europe and space enthusiasts around the world breathless with excitement. Moreover, Rosetta and Philae are outstanding examples of European collaboration with contributions from hundreds of scientists, planners, engineers and technicians over several decades." Between 2014 and September 2016, the European Space Agency (ESA) orbiter circled comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – just four kilometres in size – after a long journey through the inner Solar System. The mission's highlight came on 12 November 2014, when the small Philae lander touched down on the comet, balancing on its three 'spider's legs' – a hitherto unparalleled achievement. Among the attractions at the Natural History Museum in Vienna is one of the world’s largest and most beautiful collections of meteorites; the institution conducts important research in the field of 'small Solar System bodies' under its Director General, Christian Köberl.

Putting big scientific questions to a small comet nucleus

The idea of dispatching an orbiter and a lander to a comet was born over 30 years ago. The idea behind Rosetta was not merely to take a quick look at one of these celestial bodies from the formation of the Solar System, but instead to remain for a longer period – observing how the comet gradually becomes active as it approaches the Sun, ejecting gas and dust into space. "At the time, the research conducted on these cometary processes was insufficient," says Ekkehard Kührt, the DLR planetary researcher responsible for the scientific contribution made by DLR to the Rosetta and Philae mission. "Comets are seen as contemporary witnesses to the formation of planets, as they have largely preserved their original characteristics. We wanted to use this innate property to look at this early time."

For this reason, the objectives – and the groundbreaking accomplishments – associated with this ESA mission were defined in advance. For the first time, a spacecraft would orbit a comet nucleus, accompanying it in its journey towards the Sun. Also for the first time, a laboratory carried aboard the Philae lander would touch down on the surface to perform measurements. There is no way of getting closer to a comet. In total, Rosetta and Philae carried 21 experiments to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko; the international team of scientists were determined to photograph, hammer, collect dust and image the inner workings of the comet with radar. Among the things they wanted to discover were the composition of the comet, its physical properties, and above all, how it 'works' – especially when it becomes active – and also whether comets once brought water and building blocks for the emergence of life to Earth.

Analysis will occupy scientists for years to come

Rosetta launched on 2 March 2004. Its voyage into space lasted 10 years, during which time the spacecraft gained momentum during close flybys past the Earth and Mars, imaged the asteroids Šteins and Lutetia along the way, and finally started its approach toward Churyumov-Gerasimenko after 2.5 years of hibernation. The Rosetta orbiter reached its destination on 6 August 2014, and Philae performed the historic first landing on a comet on 12 November 2014.

The results of the mission – breathtaking images of a fissured, jet-black comet with a steady increase in outgassing as it approaches the Sun, ejecting large clouds of gas and cometary material into space. In addition, the mission revealed that comets are not 'dirty snowballs' made of loosely packed material, but icy, porous spheres of dust with an unexpectedly hard surface, and that comets like Churyumov-Gerasimenko did not bring water to the Earth after all. The Rosetta spacecraft and the Philae lander were reunited once more in September 2016; performing an unprecedented manoeuvre, Rosetta touched down gently on the surface of the comet, continuing to conduct spectacular measurements during its final approach. The orbiter and lander will now voyage together until the inevitable demise of the comet, which loses significant mass each time it approaches the Sun – every 6.5 years. Meanwhile, though, analysis of the innumerable images and the measurement data will continue for many years. NASA is also considering a return to '67P' to collect samples and bring them back to Earth.

Screenshot of the virtual exhibition

Comets as a virtual exhibition

Those unable to visit the exhibition 'Comets – the Rosetta mission: Journey to the origins of the Solar System' at the Natural History Museum in Vienna can download the 'DLR Comets' app, which is available for free in the App Store or on Google Play, (optimised for tablets) and take a virtual tour of the exhibition with all the text and image content, travel through all the exhibits, and, as a final highlight, zoom in on the comet model to scrutinise its surface from any angle.


Falk Dambowsky

Head of Media Relations, Editor
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Corporate Communications
Linder Höhe, 51147 Cologne
Tel: +49 2203 601-3959

Ulrich Köhler

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Institute of Planetary Research
Rutherfordstraße 2, 12489 Berlin

Dr. Ekkehard Kührt

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Institute of Planetary Research, Asteroids and Comets
Linder Höhe, 51147 Köln

Prof. Christian Köberl

Natural History Museum in Vienna