Thursday, December 10, 2009

Rosetta -- Grabbing the Tail of Comet C-G


For decades, researchers relied on modeling to investigate how comets -- loosely assembled icy boulders -- hung together well enough to withstand the tortures of space. However, the European Space Agency-led Rosetta Mission took that research out of the realm of modeling and made a direct assault.

Since 2002, Claudia Alexander, has been the project manager and project scientist of the U.S. Rosetta Project, the NASA contribution to the International Rosetta Mission, which launched an unmanned spacecraft in March 2004 to study comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (C-G). Alexander said that she hopes data from the mission will "help reveal conditions in the primordial solar system, before the planets formed."

"Rosetta has the most instruments of any spacecraft -- that makes it challenging and one of the most exciting missions ever," said Alexander, whose alma mater, the University of Michigan, has a number of investigators involved with two instruments: VIRTIS and ROSINA. Bruce Block  managed the team that built the electronics for VIRTIS, an imaging spectrometer that combines three observing channels in one instrument. Two of the channels are devoted to spectral mapping (mapper optical subsystem), while the third channel is devoted to spectroscopy (high resolution optical subsystem). Tamas Gombosi is the primary investigator analyzing data from VIRTIS. Mike Combi is a co-investigator with the VIRTIS team. Block, Lennard Fisk, K.C. Hansen, Andy Nagy, Martin Rubin, Valerily Tenishev and Hunter Waite are co-investigators analyzing data collected by ROSINA, the main mass spectrometer on the Rosetta orbiter.

The Rosetta spacecraft will intercept C-G in 2014 at a speed of 75,000 miles per hour and become the first spacecraft to soft-land a robot on a comet. Rosetta will also be the first spacecraft to accompany a comet as it enters our inner solar system, observing at close range how the comet changes as the Sun's heat transforms it into the celestial ghost that terrified the ancients, mystified people of the Middle Ages and still baffles scientists who've been waiting for a mission like Rosetta to reveal C-G's inner workings.

Interest in Rosetta waned slightly in the years following launch, but halfway through the 10-year mission, Rosetta has been getting more attention.




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