Scientists aim to land probe on a comet

BRITISH SCIENTISTS are putting the finishing touches to a European space mission that will land a probe on the surface of a comet. The Rosetta mission will lift off in 2003 and will send an orbiter and a lander to meet the comet Wirtanen on the outskirts of the solar system eightyears later.

With the comet approaching the Sun, the spacecraft will begin making observations that could give clues to the origins of the solar system and possibly how life began on Earth.

Comets are balls of frozen ice and dust, usually left over from the formation of the solar system about five billion years ago, although some are also thought to be interstellar travellers. Scientists have suggested that prebiotic life forms could have been carried between stars on comets, and then "seeded" life on newly-formed planets.

The climax of the mission will come when a lander will drop on to the comet's surface to carry out experiments to find out more about its composition.

The spacecraft will measure almost 100ft - as wide as a football pitch - across its solar panels, though the main body will be much smaller.

Rosetta is the latest mission in the comet exploration programme being conducted by the European Space Agency (ESA). British scientists have developed instruments for the orbiter and lander, and are contributing to a study of the comet's nucleus, inner structure, and"tail" created as the Sun heats and boils gases and liquids that comprise the comet.

"This is a tremendously exciting mission with extremely demanding technical and scientific requirements, and reflects the key role UK scientists are making to ESA's science programme," said Professor Ian Halliday, chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

More details of the mission will be revealed next Thursday at the Royal Society in London, where a model of the Rosetta orbiter and lander will be unveiled.

t The Cassini spacecraft, launched in October 1997 on a mission to Saturn, has passed around Venus as part of a "slingshot" journey to gain speed on the way through the solar system. It passed about 390 miles above Venus's surface on Thursday, collecting data which British scientists will analyse in the coming months.

Cassini will pass the Earth at an altitude of 725 miles as part of its acceleration phase on 18 August.

Anti-nuclear protesters have warned that if it hits the Earth, radioactive material from its on-board power supply would be showered into the atmosphere. Mission controllers have argued that the risk is infinitesimal.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past