The Spectacular Feat of Accomplishing Rendezvous With a Comet

This did make a bunch of headlines today, but I want to highlight just how phenomenally cool and under-appreciated this event is.  For the first time in human history, a spacecraft has made rendezvous with a comet.  It’s actually a lot of firsts/bests in one, in the rendezvous department – farthest object away, first rendezvous with a comet, I could go on and on.  Ok, I am going to go on and on here.  There’s going to be a bit of gushing, because this is really, incredibly exciting.

This required some serious planning, and some overwhelmingly complex orbital mechanics.  The European Space Agency pulled of an amazing feat here, and they deserve major kudos.  Rosetta has been on its way from Earth to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Chury for short) for ten and a half years.  It launched when I was a senior in college, and now it has, after a very long and complex journey, arrived.

In order to get out to Chury, Rosetta made multiple maneuvers over the last decade.  It flew past the Earth several times, gave Mars a pass, and in an elegant and carefully planned dance, traveled billions of miles to intercept a body that’s on its own 6.5 year orbit around the sun.  The complexity involved in this whole endeavor is mind-blowing.  It makes the orbital mechanics for the Apollo missions look like child’s play.   The journey looked like this:

And they’re not even done!  For their next trick, the ESA will have Rosetta continue to orbit, and launch the Philae Lander – oh no, folks, rendezvous is not enough, studying the comet up close and collecting data isn’t enough, they are also going to put a lander on the comet.  Philae has all kinds of sensors, but also can drill and take samples.

These guys do not think small.  They are going big, and I will be waiting with breath held and fingers crossed when Philae goes to land.  That event is currently scheduled for 11 November, once a good landing site has been selected.

And if all my rambling doesn’t get you excited about this mission, this video should:

I expect Rosetta to continue with its pioneering firsts.  I can’t wait for the pictures and data and other new discoveries to start hitting the news in the days to come.  If you’d like to know more, there are some really great resources at the ESA Rosetta page, and this Guardian article is also quite good.

Did I mention I’m excited about this?

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