Spacecraft Has Its Sights On Comet
October 14, 2014 — Ray Steele, Network Indiana — If all goes well, a spacecraft will land on a comet for the first time less than a month from now.
The Rosetta spacecraft was built and launched by the European Space Agency, though many scientists from the U.S. and other countries have worked on the project. The spacecraft launched ten years ago and finally caught up to its intended target in August. “It‘s known as Comet 67-P, which basically tells you the year it was discovered, and the ‘P‘ means it is periodic, meaning it passes by the earth every so often,” said Brian Murphy, director of the Holcomb Observatory at Butler University.
Rosetta is currently orbiting the comet as it travels through the solar system, and it is scheduled to land on the comet November 12 as the comet reaches perihelion, the point of its orbit when it is closest to the sun. “The reason for that is that when it is nearing perihelion, the comet will heat up and eject materials, and they want the spacecraft on the surface when this happens,” Murphy said.
While we know many comets are made of ice, Murphy says they could carry clues about the how we came to be. “They are sort of the leftovers from the formation of the solar system four-and-a-half billion years ago,” Murphy said. It might also help to know more about a comet‘s composition in case one began heading directly toward the earth, “so if we do need to move one off track very quickly or blow it up or whatever, we‘ll have a much better understanding of what comets are like.”