Science, Tech & Environment

Europe's space probe is poised for a trip around the solar system — with a comet


Credit: European Space Agency

The Rosetta Probe is orbiting this comet as it makes its journey through the solar system.

Europeans made history with the Rosetta Probe Wednesday. After a 10-year chase, the European Space Agency announced that its spacecraft had maneuvered alongside a speeding comet to begin mapping its surface in detail.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

The Rosetta Probe will conduct the first extended, close examination of a comet, opening the door for a new chapter in Solar System exploration. The Rosetta Probe will accompany the comet for more than a year as they swing around the Sun and back towards Jupiter again.

Matt Taylor watches the data from European Space Agency (ESA) mission control, and has been watching this Rosetta space chase for years.

"This has been one of the most significant challenges, and the reason why we're doing Rosetta in the first place: To rendezvous with a comet," says Taylor. "We've successfully done that. ... It's put us in the same orbit as the comet around the Sun. That allows us to continue to ride along side it and watch it as it develops activity as it approaches the Sun."

Getting the Rosetta Probe into the same orbit as the comet, known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, took years of hard work. Taylor says that some researchers have been working on this project for most of their lives.

"The excitement is unbelievable," he says. "Every time we see something new with this comet — it brings in a new picture or some new data — it's just fascinating. It's an excellent job that I've got."

Taylor says studying the celestial object is a bit like looking at a developing photograph.

"Every time that we're at a certain distance, we take images and readings from the comet and it looks a particular way," he says. "Now that we're getting this close, we're really getting the real features of this beast. It seems to be a combination of all the comets that we've ever been to, which is fascinating — I think we did a really good job of choosing this one."

Taylor says the ESA team is hoping to find out the composition of the comet. Right now, the group believes it's a mixture of dust, ice and some organic compounds.

"This stuff has been out there in the outskirts of the solar system, frozen in place, since the very early stages of the solar system," he says. "Studying this thing gives us a little time window back into the past to see what happened when all of this formed."

The ESA plans to land a separate instrument from the Rosetta Probe on the comet. The "lander," as Taylor calls it, will gradually land and then screw itself into the comet due to the gravity on the surface of the comet.

In addition to international recognition, this achievement has also provided Taylor with some personal glory at home.

"One of the major successes for me is that my kids are interested in it," he says. "My son now wants to be a scientist, so that's what Rosetta has done for me personally. Now my son finally thinks his dad is cool."

Check out a video clip of the Rosetta Probe's journey below.

This interview first aired on PRI's The Takeaway — a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.