Basement Beat: Still yammering about that ESA mission to land on a comet
In my column in the Aug. 7 issue of The Allegan County News, I overflowed with glee about the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
The orbiter arrived in orbit around the mountain-sized glob of frozen gravel on about Aug. 6. I basically ran out of superlatives and hyperbole describing how cool I think this mission is.
Landing. On a freakin'. Comet.
Anyway, if you've already checked out the Rosetta mission weblog, you've spotted this, but today (Aug. 13) they updated an interactive tool to look at Rosetta's path out to the comet. It also models where the comet is headed for the next year or two, as Rosetta tags along for a ride past the sun. Comet 67P will get as close to the sun as about midway between Earth's and Mars' orbits.
Here's the link to the Rosetta blog entry with the tool. It's very fun.
The ESA is going to have a front-row seat to watch as the sun starts heating up the surface of the comet. The various frozen chemicals will begin to sublimate—instead of melting into liquids, they go directly into gasses—and form the comet's coma and tail (I actually mistakenly conflated those two things in my column. A comet's coma is the sort of halo of gas and dust surrounding the comet; the tail is some of the same stuff trailing behind it, pushed by the solar wind).
That front-row seat is courtesy of a small box with legs Rosetta will drop to the surface. The mission will spend the next couple months mapping the surface of the comet, looking for a spot to land. In November, the ESA will take its one shot. There's only one lander on board. The orbiter will be close enough to not miss—probably 5 km away at that point from a 4,000 km object—but the danger is the lander will land funny, bounce off the surface (it's mountain-sized, but still only has relatively little gravity) or sink into a pile of dust.
It will be in time for my birthday. Perfect gift. I can't wait!