The European Space Agency (ESA) announced today that its Rosetta spacecraft spotted (and imaged) its destination comet for the first time since Rosetta woke from its deep-space hibernation on January 20, 2014. The Rosetta orbiter carries 11 scientific instruments on board, among them the OSIRIS (Optical, Spectroscopic and Infrared Remote Imaging System), which includes both wide-angle and narrow-angle cameras.
“Finally seeing our target after a 10 year journey through space is an incredible feeling,” says OSIRIS Principal Investigator Holger Sierks from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany. “These first images taken from such a huge distance show us that OSIRIS is ready for the upcoming adventure.”
When Rosetta reaches Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in August 2014, it will use its instruments to observe and record data regarding the comet’s surface geology, gravity, mass, shape and internal structure, its gaseous, dust-laden atmosphere, and its plasma environment.
Intrepid Rosetta has already been traveling toward its destination for 10 years, and it’s been working during its commute! It first imaged the comet three years ago before its hibernation. The 13-hour exposure images are quite impressive, when you consider they were taken at a distance of 163 million kilometers!
Currently, Rosetta is about five million kilometers from its destination and it latest images (60-300 second exposures) takes 37 minutes to travel back to Earth, then an hour an image to download. It’s part of a six-week period of preparing Rosetta’s scientific instruments for close-up study of the comet.
Rosetta will team up with its traveling companion, a lander called Philae, in the months after arrival, to continue exploration.
“This is a great start to our instrument commissioning period and we are looking forward to having all 11 instruments plus lander Philae back online and ready for arriving at the comet in just a few month’s time,” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.
As the orbiter nears the comet, OSIRIS and Rosetta’s dedicated navigational cameras will work together to provide data for the course corrections Rosetta will have to make to intercept the comet. In May, Rosetta will begin maneuvering and reducing her speed relative to the comet’s, and by the first week in August, she’ll be within 100 kilometers of the comet. Between May and August, the cameras’ “sight picture” of the comet will grow from a single pixel to more than 2,000 pixels, at which point surface features will be distinguishable.
For an overview of the instrument commissioning schedule and for regular status reports, visit the Rosetta blog.