December 11, 2013 in Nation/World

Europe plans to put probe on comet

Associated Press
 

BERLIN – It’s been likened to a parachutist trying to land on a mountaintop. Or a person attempting to leap from one speeding car to another.

The European Space Agency is planning to land an unmanned spacecraft on a comet next year in an unprecedented and exquisitely tricky mission that has been underway for almost a decade and is about to enter a critical phase.

The agency announced Tuesday that its Rosetta probe, which has been journeying through space since its launch in 2004, will be awakened from hibernation next month and will aim to drop a lander onto the icy surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Nov. 11, 2014.

The plan is different from NASA’s Deep Impact mission, which used a probe to fire a projectile into a comet in 2005 and create a plume of matter for scientists to study. That was just a drive-by compared with the rendezvous the Europeans are planning.

Scientists hope that by flying Rosetta alongside the comet and sending down a lander to collect and analyze samples, they will get a better idea of what comets are made of and their role in the formation of our solar system.

“Nobody has ever done this before,” said Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations at the European Space Agency.

Ferri noted that while NASA managed to land a probe on an asteroid in 2001, comets are much more volatile places because they constantly release dust and gas that can harm a spacecraft.

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