Rosetta spacecraft nears historic, 34,000mph rendezvous with 'rubber duck' comet

The €1.3bn project will offer the closest observation of a comet ever and could even answer questions about the origin of life

Later today the European Rosetta spacecraft is scheduled to rendezvous with a comet, bringing to an end a 10 year chase over four billion miles that has been described by scientists involved as “the sexiest, most fantastic mission ever”.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta probe will catch up with the comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as it hurtles through space at speeds of 55,000kmph (34,000mph), using its on-board thrusters to adjust its speed until it is circling 67P at a gentle walking pace.

Update: Rosetta has now arrived at the comet!

Although probes and satellites have performed flybys of these icy bodies before, this will be the first time that scientists have ever had a chance to conduct sustained observation of a comet.

Rosetta, which is named after the archaeological stone that helped us decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, will try to establish a triangular orbit around 100km 67P, studying its gravity field to prepare for closer observation.

Rosetta is establishing its first orbit today, but will move slowly closer to the comet as it learns more about its gravitational field.

If this orbit is successful then on 11 November the craft will launch a tiny 100kg lander, Philae, which will attach itself to the side of 67P with an explosive harpoon.

Tools on-board Philae will then be used to analyse the ice of 67P to see if its chemical composition is similar to that of water found on Earth - if so, it would give credence to the theory that Earth was originally a 'dry' planet and that water and organic matter was seeded here by passing comets.

For today though, the Rosetta team will be waiting on tenterhooks to see if the approach is successful - a wait made all the more excruciating by the 22-minute delay for radio signals to travel from the spacecraft back to Earth.

“We have to make baby steps as we approach it, because we don't know exactly how the comet is behaving and how the spacecraft will behave around it.” project scientist Matt Taylor told the BBC.

This approach has been made all the more difficult by the unexpected shape of the comet, which appears as two fused pieces of rock - likened by most observers to a giant, space-bound rubber duck.

"We have a rough idea but we have to take a gradual approach to really get a handle on how to fly around a comet," said Dr Taylor.

"For me this is the sexiest, most fantastic mission there's ever been. It's ticking a number of boxes in terms of fascination, exploration, technology and science - predominantly science."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?