Philiae on the surface. Credis: ESA

How to Land On a Comet: the Rosetta Mission

Explore the remarkable ESA Rosetta mission, a voyage to unlock the secrets of comets. Discover its discoveries, and scientific legacy in this amazing article

ESA’s Rosetta space mission impressed the world as it embarked on an extraordinary journey to study and land on a comet. This ambitious mission, launched in 2004 on board an Ariane 5, aimed to provide unique insights into the origin and evolution of our solar system. 

The first ideas for a mission to study comets date back to May 1985, when the Solar System Working Group of ESA proposed one of the most important missions for the Horizon 2000 program. From these initial ideas, it wasn’t until 1993 that the final mission profile was established after numerous technical revisions and budget cuts.

Focus on the objectives

Rosetta‘s primary objective was to rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, orbit it, and ultimately deploy a lander called Philae onto its surface. Through this mission, scientists wanted to gain valuable data about comets, considered time capsules from the early days of the solar system. The mission aimed to understand the composition, structure, and behavior of comets, shedding light on the formation of celestial bodies and the origins of life on Earth.

Rosetta Liftoff on board of a Ariane 5. Credits: ESA
Rosetta Liftoff on board of an Ariane 5. Credits: ESA

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ESA engineers like archaeologists and linguists

The name of the mission was not chosen randomly, as analyzing the genesis of the origin of the solar system so deeply, is like deciphering a language that has been incomprehensible to the human species until now, like the key role that the Rosetta Stone played in understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The name of the lander also holds significant meaning. The lander was named Philae, after the Latin name of a small island on the Nile, where an archaeologist discovered an obelisk with inscriptions in Greek and hieroglyphs in 1817. The obelisk, in conjunction with the Rosetta Stone, proved instrumental in deciphering those ancient languages. Exactly as the two probes did with the comet.

Rosetta Probe in all it's magnificance. Credits: ESA
Rosetta Probe in all it’s magnificance. Credits: ESA

It’s playtime, journey, and challenges

Rosetta‘s journey was a testament to human ingenuity and engineering prowess. It took ten years and a complex series of gravity-assist maneuvers around Earth and Mars to reach its destination. During its long voyage, Rosetta explored asteroids Steins and Lutetia, taking a lot of images using both his primary instruments, OSIRIS for photos and VIRTIS for infrared images. This provides valuable data about these ancient remnants of the early solar system.

Asteroid Lutetia observed by Rosetta. Credis: ESA.
Asteroid Lutetia observed by Rosetta. Credits: ESA

One of the biggest challenges of the mission was landing the Philae lander on the irregular and unpredictable surface of Comet 67P. After a suspenseful descent lasting 7 hours, Philae successfully touched down in November 2014, becoming the first spacecraft to land on a comet. 

Although Philae had some difficulties anchoring to the comet’s surface, in the end, it managed to hook by slightly drilling the surface. It still managed to conduct numerous experiments and transmit valuable data before entering hibernation due to lack of sunlight.

Philiae on the surface. Credis: ESA
Philiae on the surface. Credis: ESA

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Understanding the building blocks of existence

The Rosetta mission revolutionized our understanding of comets. It discovered that the structure of Comet 67P resembles a “rubber duck” shape, with a distinct head and body connected by a narrow neck. Rosetta’s instruments, crossing the data in symbiosis with Philae, analyzed the comet’s surface, revealing organic compounds, water ice, and complex molecules essential for life. 

The mission also provided insights into the comet’s activity, such as the release of gas and dust as it approached the Sun. Including the first aurora observed on a comet.

Aurora observed on the comet 67P/CHURYUMOV-GERASIMENKO. Credits: ESA
Aurora observed on the comet 67P/CHURYUMOV-GERASIMENKO. Credits: ESA

Moreover, Rosetta‘s data indicated that comets may have played a significant role in delivering water and organic materials to early Earth, providing essential ingredients for the emergence of life. The mission’s findings have contributed to our knowledge of planetary formation processes and the potential habitability of other celestial bodies.

A colour image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko composed of three images. Credits: ESA
A colour image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko composed of three images. Credits: ESA

Look at the universe like kids full of wonders

The Rosetta mission has left an indelible mark on space exploration and scientific understanding. Its groundbreaking achievements have inspired future missions and laid the foundation for further comet research. The mission showcased the importance of international collaboration, as scientists and engineers from multiple countries worked together to achieve unparalleled success.

Rosetta approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credits: ESA
Rosetta approaching comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credits: ESA

ESA’s Rosetta space mission has transformed our understanding of comets, offering remarkable insights into the origins of our solar system and the potential for life beyond Earth. Through its revolutionary discoveries, Rosetta has expanded the frontiers of human knowledge and inspired generations of scientists and space enthusiasts. The mission’s legacy will continue to shape our exploration of the cosmos and our quest to unravel the mysteries of our celestial neighborhood. 


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Federico Coppola

Federico Coppola

A third-year student of Histoy and Italian Modern literature at Federico II in Naples, passionate about space, writing, and with an incurable dream of flying up through the clouds to reach the stars.
Admin of the Instagram page Italian_space_meme

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