Rosetta's cometary goal now in sight

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June 9 2011 11:03 AM

Rosetta's cometary goal now in sight

Rosetta is an amazing probe launched by the European Space Agency. In 2014 it will go into orbit around the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and actually deploy a lander to sample the surface!

That rendezvous is still years away, but the target is now in sight: Rosetta has returned its first image of the comet.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Oh, very cool! The top image is the wide angle shot, showing a densely-populated star field toward the center of our galaxy; from Rosetta that's the direction to the comet. The second image zooms in a bit, and you can see some distant stars and nebulosity. The bottom one has been processed to remove the stars, and the nucleus of Churyumov-Gerasimenko stands out.

Note that this image was taken when Rosetta was still 163 million kilometers (100 million miles) from the comet -- that's more than the distance from the Earth to the Sun! That's why it took a total of 13 hours of exposure time to see the comet in these images; it's still extremely faint from that great distance.

These pictures are important for several reasons: they test the cameras, a critical event for the upcoming encounter; they provide navigation cues, allowing engineers to test if the position of the comet is where they expected it to be; and they give the scientists and engineers practice in dealing with the images from the probe.

Not that Rosetta has simply been coasting along; it's passed by the Earth, Mars, and even two asteroids -- Lutetia (see the gallery below of those spectacular images!) and Steins -- returning incredibly lovely pictures of these worlds.

Rosetta is already a very successful mission, and the best is yet to come.

Image credit: ESA 2011 MPS for OSIRIS-Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA



Image gallery of Rosetta's flyby of the asteroid Lutetia



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