Brussels, 20 Feb 2004
Scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA) announced the launch date for the first space mission aimed at landing on the nucleus of a comet on 19 February
The Rosetta spacecraft and lander will take off on 26 February from French Guiana's Kourou spaceport for a 12 year space expedition. It will take ten years for Rosetta to reach comet 67 P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In summer 2014, the spacecraft will enter the comet's orbit, edge toward its nucleus and release the lander, Philae, from a distance of one kilometre. No existing rocket is powerful enough to send the spacecraft directly to its destination.
The United States' Stardust spacecraft has already gathered particles from a comet's tail and taken pictures of its nucleus but 'Rosetta will be the first ever spacecraft to perform a soft landing on a comet's nucleus,' said UK science minister Lord Sainsbury at the news conference. 'It is hoped the Rosetta mission will provide us with an understanding of the origins of the Sun and the planets, including Earth. It could also provide answers to the question of how life actually began.'
Dr Ian Wright, one of the scientists overseeing the mission, explained that there is a possibility that the water on earth, essential to the beginning of life, was originally brought by comets. The probe will study the comet's materials, which are believed to have remained unchanged since the formation of the solar system, in an attempt to explain the connection.
'We will (effectively) go back 4.6 billion years, to when the solar system was in its infant stages and the planets were forming out of a cloud of dust and gas,' said project scientist Dr Gerhard Schwehm.
The probe, which should have launched a year ago but was grounded after an explosion at take-off, will also assist investigations into the threat of rogue asteroids.
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