Europe’s unmanned Rosetta probe has been on a road trip of a lifetime. 10 years ago Rosetta began its mission to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. 6.4 billion kilometers later (4 billion miles) Rosetta has just completed a seven-minute thrust burn to pull alongside the comet.
The two objects are hurtling through space somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Now what? Rosetta will orbit 67P at a distance of 100 kilometers and observe the comet as it nears the sun. The real fun begins in November when Rosetta will attempt to land a small lander probe onto the comet.
A successful probe landing could give scientists a wealth of information about comets that could shed light on the origins of everything from comets to water on our planet. Some scientists theorize the water on Earth came from comets impacting our early planet.
Rosetta’s rendezvous with 67P took it around Earth three times and around Mars once as it built up speed to catch up with the fast-moving comet. Recent observations by the probe shows 67P has an odd shape that has been dubbed a rubber duck. It’s about four kilometers long and looks like it was made up of two objects fused into one or heavily eroded.
As 67P nears the sun, Rosetta will have a ringside seat to see the comet turn take on a more traditional shape we are used to seeing including a tail. What scientists learn over the next few months could help the community understand the exact compositions of comets and how much material they lose as they slingshot around the sun.
Rosetta’s mission will be a relatively short one. After it sends its lander to the comet, both probes won’t survive much longer. They are not expected to make it too far past the end of the year. Still, the data collected will keep scientists busy for years to come.
The European Space Agency, who are behind the Rosetta mission, hope to use the success of this mission as it lobbies governments for a new, four-year budget in December.
Check out the latest pictures of 67P below. These newest pictures show incredible detail of the comet’s surface.