After 10 years, and billions of miles, Rosetta catches its comet

Gotcha! European spacecraft will tag alongside, collecting data as comet sweeps past the sun

After a decade of traveling at about 34 thousand miles an hour through deep space , the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft has become the first craft to rendezvous with a comet.

The European Space Agency (ESA) today put the spacecraft, which carries 11 scientific instruments, through the last of a series of 10 rendezvous maneuvers to get Rosetta in position to match the comet's speed and trajectory. The maneuvering began in May.

"After 10 years, five months and four days travelling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometres, we are delighted to announce finally 'we are here,'" said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's director general, in a statement. "Europe's Rosetta is now the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet, a major highlight in exploring our origins. Discoveries can start."

Launched in March 2004, Rosetta is set first study the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in unprecedented detail. In November, the craft will send a probe to the comet's nucleus, which will allow it to track the object as it flies past the sun and send data back to Earth.

The Rosetta spacecraft is getting up close and personal with a comet, shooting this photo of it from just 80 miles away. (Image: ESA/Rosetta)

Scientists around the world are excited about this space exploration project because comets are time capsules containing primitive material left over from the epoch when our sun and its planets formed.

NASA said that data collected during this mission can help scientists learn more about the origin and evolution of the solar system and the role comets may have played in seeding Earth with water.

The ESA said today that Rosetta is now about 62 miles from the comet's surface, and it will continue to move closer.

Within the next several months, the spacecraft will try to fly around the comet while 18 miles, or less, from its surface.

"Arriving at the comet is really only just the beginning of an even bigger adventure, with greater challenges still to come as we learn how to operate in this unchartered environment, start to orbit and, eventually, land," said Sylvain Lodiot, ESA's Rosetta spacecraft operations manager.

According to NASA, Rosetta's probe will obtain the first images taken from a comet's surface and will provide the first analysis of a comet's composition by drilling into its body.

The spacecraft and its probe also will be the first machines to witness at close proximity how a comet changes as it is subjected to the increasing intensity of the sun's radiation.

Rosetta was reactivated in January 2014 after a record 957 days in hibernation.

There are three U.S.-made scientific instruments onboard Rosetta. They include what's called the Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter (MIRO), an ultraviolet spectrometer called Alice, and an Ion and Electron Sensor (IES).

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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