Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenk, as photographed by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft
On Aug. 6, 2014, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft completed its decade-long journey to reach Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, becoming the first spacecraft to ever orbit a comet. The mission will reach its epic climax when it releases a small robotic lander, called Philae, onto the cometary surface in November. The lander will drill into the surface while Rosetta tags along with the comet's orbit as Churyumov-Gerasimenko makes close approach of the sun. Although Rosetta is unprecedented in that no other mission has achieved orbital insertion around a comet, it's certainly not the first robotic probe to make an intimate cometary encounter. So here's a rundown of 7 encounter of 6 comets by 5 spacecraft since the first close encounter with Halley's Comet in 1986.
Unquestionably the most famous comet in history, Halley's Comet was a prime target for space agencies in 1986 during its 75- to 76-year orbit through the inner solar system. Comet science is still a developing field, but in 1986, very little was known about the composition of these interplanetary vagabonds. In October of that year, the 15-kilometer-long Halley's Comet was visited by the European Space Agency's Giotto mission. The half-ton probe came within 600 kilometers (373 miles) of the comet's nucleus, taking the first photographs of the outgassing vapor from discrete areas of the surface producing its tail and coma (the gas surrounding the nucleus). It was this mission that confirmed the "dirty snowball" theory of cometary composition: a mix of volatile ices and dust. However, Giotto was only able to get so close to the famous comet with the help of the "Halley Armada," a number of international spacecraft all tasked with observing this rare event. Giotto captured the closest imagery, but two Russia/France probes (Vega 1 and 2) and two Japanese craft (Suisei and Sakigake) observed from afar.
At roughly half the size of Halley's comet, Comet Borrelly was found to have similar attributes to its famous cousin. The nucleus was also potato-shaped and blackened. Outgassing vapor was also observed coming from cracks in the nucleus crust where volatiles were exposed to sunlight, sublimating ices into space. NASA's Deep Space 1 probe flew past the comet with a close approach of 3,417 kilometers on Sept. 22, 2001.
Comet Wild 2 -- pronounced "Vilt" after its Swiss discoverer Paul Wild who spotted it in 1978 -- underwent a dramatic alteration in 1974. It is calculated that due to a close pass of Jupiter in 1974, the 5 kilometer-wide comet now orbits the sun every 6 years as opposed to its leisurely 43 years before the gas giant bullied it. The orbital modification meant that Wild 2 was an ideal target for NASA's Stardust mission to lock onto. On Jan. 4, 2004, the Stardust probe gave chase, getting so close to the comet that it was able to collect particles from Wild 2's coma. This image was taken at a distance of less than 240 kilometers (149 miles). The Stardust sample return canister came back to Earth safely, landing in Utah on Jan. 15, 2006. The microscopic particles captured from the comet continue to provide a valuable insight into the organic compounds comets contain. Interestingly, the Stardust spacecraft was granted a mission extension (dubbed New Exploration of Tempel 1 -- NExT). In 2011 it rendezvoused with its second comet, Tempel 1 -- the scene of NASA's 2005 Deep Impact mission -- to analyze the crater that Deep Impact's impactor left behind on the cometary surface.
NASA's Deep Impact mission reached the eight-kilometer-wide (five-mile-wide) comet Tempel 1 in 2005. On July 4, the probe deliberately smashed its impactor into the comet's nucleus, producing a cloud of fine material. A crater -- 100 meters wide (328 feet) by 30 meters (98 feet) deep -- was left behind. A treasure trove of compounds were spotted by the Deep Impact spacecraft and the explosion could be observed from Earth. In 2011, the recycled Stardust-NExT mission visited comet Tempel 1 for the second time.
The fifth space probe encounter with a comet happened on Nov. 4, 2010. NASA's recycled Deep Impact probe -- now the EPOXI mission -- visited comet Hartley 2, examining its strange-shaped nucleus. Described as a "peanut" or "chicken drumstick," this comet is an oddity. During its close approach of under 700 kilometers (435 miles), EPOXI photographed the comet's irregular topography: two rough lobes connected by a smooth center. Jets of gas could be seen being ejected from discrete locations. During the Hartley 2 flyby press conference at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), mission scientists expressed their surprise that these jets of vapor are being emitted from sun-facing and shaded regions on the comet surface. Needless to say, analysis of the Hartley 2 flyby data will keep scientists busy for some time to come. "This is an exploration moment," remarked Ed Weiler, NASA's Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, during the conference.
On Feb. 14, 2011, the veteran Stardust-NExT (New Exploration of Tempel) mission made history by visiting a comet for the second time. Comet Tempel 1 was first encountered by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005 after smashing the cometary nucleus with an impactor. This second encounter provided scientists with an unprecedented opportunity to study the same comet after six years of orbiting the sun. Preliminary findings suggested Tempel 1 has undergone some erosion during those six years in deep space. Also, the impact crater left behind by Deep Impact was imaged during the Stardust-NExT flyby and it appeared to match the size and shape predicted after the 2005 impact. However, the crater appeared smoother than expected, so work is ongoing to analyze the 72 photographs taken by the flyby to understand the processes shaping the comet's nucleus.
At 5:29 a.m. EDT (9:29 a.m. GMT) on Aug. 6, 2014, the European Rosetta spacecraft completed a 6.5 minute-long engine burn to insert itself into orbit around Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Once under the influence of the comet's weak gravity, the spacecraft began to carry out a series of triangular loops, taking several days to complete. The long-duration mission is the first of its kind, where the spacecraft will study the comet from orbit, watching for surface changes as it approaches the sun, making perihelion (the point of closest solar approach). In November, a small lander called Philae will touch down on the surface to drill into the comet's material, revealing its small-scale composition. This photograph from Rosetta was captured on Aug. 3 when the probe was fast approaching the comet at a distance of less than 300 kilometers.READ MORE: Rosetta Probe Makes Historic Comet Rendezvous
The space probe Rosetta on Wednesday made a historic rendezvous with a comet, climaxing a 10-year, 3.7-billion-mile chase through the Solar System, the European Space Agency (ESA) said.
"We're at the comet," Rosetta's flight operations manager, Sylvain Lodiot, declared in a webcast from mission control in Darmstadt, Germany.
It marks the first time a spacecraft has been sent into orbit around a comet, a wanderer of the Solar System whose primeval dust and ice may hold insights into how the planets formed.
In November, a robot scientific lab called Philae will be sent down to the surface to make the first-ever landing on a comet.
Rosetta's rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was confirmed at 0929 GMT at distance of 400 million km from Earth, according to signals received at ground stations.
ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain hailed the fruit of 20 years' work to design, build and launch the three-tonne craft and then steer it to a tiny target in deep space.
"It makes 2014 the year of Rosetta," he said.
"Rosetta is a unique mission, unique by its scientific goal," Dordain said. "Understanding our origins is certainly the best way to understand our future."
On its Twitter page, the Rosetta mission said "Hello, comet!" in the languages of the agency's 20 nations.
"It's a historic meeting and a great first in world science, which the global space community has been awaiting for a decade," said Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of France's National Centre for Space Research (CNES), a major contributor to the project.
ESA showed a close-up picture of a gnarled, greyish object, comprising two lobes joined by a neck. The surface is pucked by what seems to be impact marks.
"Our first clear views of the comet have given us plenty to think about," project scientist Matt Taylor said.
"Is this double-lobed structure built from two separate comets that came together in the Solar System's history, or is it one comet that has eroded dramatically and asymmetrically over time?"
Launched in March 2004, Rosetta had to make four flybys of Mars and Earth, using their gravitational force as a slingshot to build up speed to catch up with its prey.
It entered a 31-month hibernation as light from the distant Sun became too weak for its solar panels. That period ended in January with a wake-up call sent from Earth.
It then began a complex series of maneuvers to slow down to walking speed with the comet.
Rosetta Probe Makes Historic Comet Rendezvous: Page 2
ESA's Rosetta spacecraft nears comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in this artist’s interpretation. ESA
If any one of those operations had failed, the probe would have gone whizzing past its target.
The final maneuver was a small firing of thrusters, lasting just six minutes and 26 seconds, it said.
"This burn will tip Rosetta into the first leg of a series of three-legged triangular paths about the comet," ESA said.
The "pyramidal" track placed the craft at a height of about 60 miles above the comet, said Lodiot.
- Primeval matter -
Each leg of the triangle will be around 60 miles and take Rosetta between three and four days to complete. Rosetta will gradually reduce its height, entering gravitational orbit in September.
Comets are believed by astrophysicists to be ancient ice and dust left from the building of the Solar System around 4.6 billion years ago. This cosmic rubble is the oldest, least touched material in our stellar neighborhood.
Understanding its chemical ID and physical composition will give insights into how the planets coalesced after the Sun flared into light, it is hoped.
It could also determine the fate of a theory called "pan-spermia," which suggests comets, by smashing into the infant Earth, sowed our home with water and precious organic molecules, providing us with a kickstart for life.
The spacecraft is named after the famous stone, now in the British Museum, which explained Egyptian hieroglyphics, while its payload, Philae, is named after a Nile obelisk that in turn helped decipher the Rosetta stone.
The 2.5-mile comet returns around the Sun on an egg-shaped orbit every six and a half years, its furthest point being beyond Jupiter.
It is named after two Ukrainian astronomers, Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, who first spotted it in 1969.