On 26 February, Rosetta will be setting off on its long journey through our solar system to meet up with Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It will take the European Space Agency (ESA) space probe ten years to reach its destination.
Image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
Credits: ESA and European Southern Observatory
The comet, which moves in an elliptical orbit around the Sun, will at rendezvous be some 675 million kilometres from the Sun, near the point in its orbit farthest from the Sun. The meeting point was not chosen at random: at this point the comet is still barely active, it is still in fact a frozen lump of ice and interplanetary dust, in all probability the matter from which our solar system emerged four and a half billion years ago. Rosetta’s job is to find out more about these strange bodies that travel through our solar system.
As it moves on, the comet will begin to change. As it approaches the Sun, it will - like all comets - become active: in the warmth of the Sun’s rays, the ices evaporate, tearing small dust particles from the surface. This produces the comet head (the coma) and tail during solar flyby skims several metres of matter off the comet’s surface. In the case of a small comet like Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the shrinkage is a good 1% each time round.” As it flies past the Sun every 6.6 years it can look forward to a short future, especially on a cosmic timescale.
Franco Bonacina | ESA
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