Scientists are waiting for the first signs of life from a comet-chasing space probe 800 million kilometres from Earth.
The European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft is due to rendezvous with the 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko comet next August – where it will attempt to perform one of the most technologically advanced missions ever undertaken.
The probe, which was sent into space in 2004 and has spent the past two and a half years in a deep sleep, has been programmed to ‘wake itself’ at 10am today by what the agency has called the ‘most important alarm clock in the solar system’.
It will take up to six hours for the vessel’s star trackers to warm up – and only then can it attempt to reconnect with the ESA control room in Darmstadt, Germany. It is then expected to take around 45 minutes for the signal to reach home, meaning controllers will be tentatively listening out for the signal between 17:30 and 18:30 GMT to determine if the mission is still on track.
In pictures: European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
In pictures: European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
1/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
Image of Comet 67P/CG taken by the Philae lander from a distance of approximately 3km from the surface
2/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
Rosetta's lander Philae took this parting shot of its mothership shortly after separation
3/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
Parting shot of the Philae lander after separation, captured by one of Rosetta's cameras
4/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
A technician celebrates after the successful landing of the Philae lander, in the control room at the ESA headquarters in Darmstadt
5/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
Scientists celebrate at a mission observation centre in Toulouse, southern France as they receive information that Philae has landed on the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet
6/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
Astronomer Klim Ivanovych Churyumov, who discovered the comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 1969, reacts after the successful landing of the Philae lander on the comet
7/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
A model demonstrates how the landing device Philae, of the space probe Rosetta, stands on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at the press center of the satellite control center of the European Space Agency in Darmstadt, Germany
8/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
An artist impression of Rosetta's lander Philae on the surface of comet
9/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
Picture taken on October 28 by the navigation camera on Rosetta shows the boulder-strewn neck region of comet 67/P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It was captured from a distance of 9.7 km from the center of the comet
10/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
Picture taken on October 24 shows a raised plateau on the larger lobe of the comet
11/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
The probe is supposed to fly to a comet and put down a small laboratory on the top of it
12/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
A scientist from the European Space Agency with an airworthy copy of space probe 'Rosetta' in the control center in Darmstadt, Germany
13/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
Maneuvers designed for the actual space probe are simulated with the replica. 'Rosetta' will be woken up from an energy saving hibernation after 957 days
14/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
A European Space Agency employee sits in the control room for the Rosetta mission in Darmstadt, Germany
15/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
Scientists at the European Space Agency are expecting their comet-chasing probe Rosetta to wake from almost three years of hibernation
16/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
Europe's Rosetta probe on a NASA mission
17/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
NASA is participating in the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission, whose goal is to observe one such space-bound icy dirt ball from up close for months on end
18/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
An impression of the Philae lander
19/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
ESA probe Rosetta with Mars in the background. The three-tonne probe blasted off aboard an an Ariane V rocket from Kourou, French Guiana in 2004
20/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
Rosetta orbiter deploying the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the spacecraft measures 32 m across including the solar arrays, while the comet nucleus is thought to be about 4 km wide
21/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
The spacecraft, festooned with 25 instruments between its lander and orbiter (including three from NASA), is programmed to 'wake up' from hibernation
22/22 European Space Agency's Rosetta mission
An Ariane V carrying the three-tonne probe Rosetta blasting off from Kourou, beginning a decade-long quest to hunt a comet in the depths of the Solar System and shadow it around the Sun in a bid to tease out secrets of how life began on Earth
The Rosetta craft has been chasing down the comet, which is hurtling through space at 24,600 mph, for a decade since launching in 2004.
As it is impossible for it to achieve the speed needed required, the spacecraft has completed three flybys of Earth and one of Mars to build up pace using the planets' gravitational pulls.
Operating on solar energy alone, the spacecraft was placed into a deep sleep in mid-2011 in order to conserve energy as it cruised far away from the Sun’s gaze and out towards the orbit of Jupiter. It has been out of contact with Earth ever since.
It is hoped that the Rosetta will finally catch up with the comet in August when it will spend a couple of months studying and mapping the 2.5-mile wide ball of ice and dust, before dropping a small robot on its surface to collect samples and take pictures. The project has been compared to attempting to land a fly on a speeding bullet.
European Space Agency project scientist Matt Taylor compared the mission to the film 'Armageddon’ - in which Bruce Willis’s character lands on an asteroid to prevent it from destroying Earth.
“We look at comets as being a time capsule, they are relics from the beginning of the solar system,” added Mr Taylor, speaking to The Sunday Telegraph. “We felt we had to go to one.”
Fred Jansen, ESA’s Rosetta mission manager, added: “We’re very excited to have this important milestone in sight, but we’ll be anxious to assess the health of the spacecraft after Rosetta has spent nearly 10 years in space.”