A spacecraft is about to orbit a comet and land on its surface
10329059_10154217464200008_4688752434503259877_nsmall.jpg
Image: ESA via Reddit

Rosetta is a robotic spacecraft that was launched by the European Space agency in March 2004 with a unique mission - to study the comet 67P/Churyumov-Geraskimenko as it turns from a frozen nugget of ice and rock, into a sun-warmed dynamo spewing jets of dust and gas into a giant tail. 

And now, the transformation has begun.

"Comet 67P is coming alive," Claudia Alexander, project scientist for the U.S. Rosetta Project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a NASA press release. "And it is even more active than I expected."

Rosetta spent the past few years in hibernation, and was woken up in January 2014 when her destination was in site. 

The image above shows extremely happy scientists cheering as the spacecraft successfully woke up from 957 days of hibernation - prior to that point, they had no clue whether the spacecraft would still be functional.

At the time, her target, Comet 67P, looked like a tiny pinprick travelling through space. But over the past month, a bright cloud has appeared around the nucleus - the beginning of the process that will result in the comment developing a magnificent tail.

Rosetta is scheduled to come in line with the comet in August to monitor the changes.

"It's beginning to look like a real comet,” said Holger Sierks of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany where Rosetta's OSIRIS science camera was built. "It is hard to believe that only a few months from now, Rosetta will be deep inside this cloud of dust and en route to the origin of the comet’s activity."

Spacecraft have flown by comets before, but this is the first time a spacecraft will orbit a comet for 17 months, allowing scientists to watch in detail it as it evolves on its path towards the Sun, and then back out again.

A lander from the spacecraft is also scheduled to touch down on the comet in November, where it will study the comet’s nucleus while Rosetta monitors from overhead.

We can’t wait to see what this momentous mission reveals. Watch this space.

*Update: The original article had an error in the intro stating Rosetta was a NASA spacecraft, when it is a European Space Agency mission as stated in the body of the story. Apologies for any confusion.* 

Source: ESANASA and Reddit