In recent hours, the global space community has been eagerly awaiting news from the European Space Agency’s control centre in Darmstadt. Now it’s official, the Rosetta comet probe, designed and built by Airbus Defence and Space (formerly Airbus Defence and Space) for the European Space Agency (ESA), has awoken from its slumber!
After around two and a half years (957 days) in hibernation, during which there has been no contact with the probe, Rosetta has been woken up.
Rosetta is currently some 807 million kilometres away from Earth, but the total distance it has covered since taking off aboard an Ariane 5 launcher from Kourou (French Guiana) on 2 March 2004 amounts to over 6.2 billion kilometres. The probe is now a mere nine million kilometres or so from its target, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
The Rosetta mission will help scientists to understand how our solar system formed from primordial matter some 4.6 billion years ago. While the matter that ended up in the solar system’s planets has been transformed by the actions of solar radiation and geological processes, comets preserve this matter in its original state.
“We were all on the edge of our seats waiting for the signal that Rosetta was alive and well!” says project manager Gunther Lautenschläger. But the team’s patience was put to the test with a wait of around 8 hours between the alarms going off at 10:00 am GMT and reception of the first message from the comet probe back on Earth that evening at 18:18 pm GMT. The probe went through an unprecedented reactivation process, starting with warming up, then assuming the correct orientation in space and pointing its two-metre-wide antenna towards Earth before Rosetta finally sending its first ‘hello’ back home. Although travelling at the speed of light, the sheer distance it had to cover through space, meant it took the signal 43 minutes to reach Earth.
Gunther concludes: “What a journey! It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 10 years since saying goodbye to our humble spacecraft. And yet, this is where it all gets interesting. It’s an exciting year ahead for Rosetta and our team. The scientific community will finally be able to get their hands on some unique data to further their understanding of our solar system.”