The European probe begins the year-long process of finding a parking spot.
Comets are the anarchic beasts of the galaxy. They travel about, paying no heed to the laws or orbits of others, destroying lives as they go, much like the men who chase them. Ok, everything I know about comets I learned from Ray Bradbury's Leviathan '99, which is good enough for me. However, it's not good enough for science. To that end, the European Space Agency launched the Rosetta probe to land on a comet and see for itself. After almost a decade in space, the probe is waking up from a deep sleep and preparing to make its final approach on the great comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Now, the time for waiting is over. On 5am EST, January 20th, the Rosetta will receive the wake-up signal and proceed onto the next phase of its mission. Once the probe is determined to be fully functional (which is still unclear at this point), it'll fly closer to the comet and take pictures, while the team back on Earth determines a good spot to land on the 2.5 mile-in-diameter comet. Then, the lander will drop to the surface and stay attached, despite the weak gravity, via harpoon. If everything goes as planned, that won't happen until November 11th. Space missions are nothing if not methodical.
From there, the lander will drill into the surface of the comet and analyze exactly what's in this ball of ice and rock. The finding should prove to be interesting, as comets remain largely untouched since first forming. "This time capsule's been locked away for 4.6 billion years," said ESA's director of science Mark McCaughrean.
Launched by the European Space Agency in 2004, the Rosetta has performed three fly-bys of Earth and another one of Mars, using gravity as a slingshot so it can catch the 67P comet, which orbits the sun at about 62,000 MPH. During the last two years, it's been in hibernation mode to conserve energy and allow the ESA fix various glitches, like a helium leak in a maneuvering thruster.
Source: Washington Post