(PIX11) — A historic lander is poised to possibly unlock the mysteries of how life as we know it came to be, after more than a decade of hurtling through space chasing a unique comet.
Rosetta has traveled some 6.4 billion kilometers as it circled Earth and Mars to finally reach Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The pair now lies about 405 million kilometers from Earth, the European Space Agency announced Wednesday.
Now that Rosetta has arrived at its comet destination, scientists are venturing into unchartered territory.
“We have come an extraordinarily long way since the mission concept was first discussed in the late 1970s and approved in 1993, and now we are ready to open a treasure chest of scientific discovery that is destined to rewrite the textbooks on comets for even more decades to come,” said Alvaro Gimenez, ESA’s director of science and robotic exploration.
Described as “duck-like” with two distinct segments joined by a “neck,” the dark, dusty comet likely was created by two separate comets coming together, or by one comet that eroded asymmetrically over time.
Using Comet 67P, Rosetta is exploring the theory that perhaps life on Earth came from outer space.
During the chaotic beginning of the solar system, comets are thought to have collided, creating planets, destroying planets and possibly depositing elements — like those needed to make liquid water — on said planets.
Scientists have reason to believe that Comet 67P, for example, has emitted water vapor into space at a rate of about 300 milliliters per second, creating a hazy “coma” around the comet.
If comets are in fact what seeded the origins of what became life as we know it, Rosetta is trying to get to the bottom of it.
It’ll be a tricky job getting Rosetta to land just right on the fast-moving comet zooming through space at 55,000 kilometers per hour.
Since it launched in 2004, Rosetta has made three gravity-assist flybys of Earth and one of MArs to help situate it on the right path.
Its speed and trajectory was gradually adjusted 10 times since May. Each adjustment was critical and if any of them failed, the mission would have been lost, scientists said.
While Rosetta has come further than any other explorer before it, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.
In the next six weeks, Rosetta will edge even closer to the comet, orbiting the projectile and ultimately landing on it, joining the comet for its trip around the sun.
If all goes according to plan, Rosetta will lock into the comet by mid-November, scientists said.