Feeds

Comet chasers seek secret of life

ESA mission launches next week

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Next Thursday, a rocket carrying a robotic explorer will launch, marking the start of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to land on a comet.

The mission will take 10 years, with the lander making three fly-bys of earth and one of Mars before it reaches its destination, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, in 2014.

The Ariane 5 rocket will launch from Kourou in French Guiana. For large sections of the journey, the craft will fly in hibernation mode, to save on fuel. But it will still make some observations en route, and will activate its camera on approach to send back images of the comet. This will enable the ESA team to improve calculations about the position, size and orbit of the cosmic snowball.

Once on the surface, the Philae lander will conduct a range of experiments with the 10 instruments on board. The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) funded development and construction of two key instruments: the Ptolemy experiment on the Philae lander (Open University and CCLRC-Rutherford Appleton Laboratory) and the Plasma Interface Unit (PIU, Imperial College, London) built for the Rosetta Plasma Consortium instrument package on the orbiter. The PIU will study the nature of the solar wind’s interaction with the comet.

Ptolemy will analyse the nature and distribution of the most important cometary surface materials. Its experiment is based upon a coupled gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer. The plan is that these will determine the abundance and stable isotopic compositions of elements such as hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen.

Dr. Ian Wright, principal investigator on the Ptolemy project, said the study of these biologically important elements is "strongly implicated in humankind's quest to understand the origin of life on Earth".

The study of comets is important because they open a window into the earliest days of the solar system. They have remained essentially unchanged, relative to other orbiting bodies. They are also known as the bringers of life, and are credited with bringing the lighter elements to the surface of earth, playing a crucial part in forming our atmosphere and our seas. Some speculate that the earliest seeds of life – organic molecules - may also have arrived by comet. ®

Eight steps to building an HP BladeSystem

More from The Register

next story
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 claimed lives of HIV/AIDS cure scientists
Researchers, advocates, health workers among those on shot-down plane
Forty-five years ago: FOOTPRINTS FOUND ON MOON
NASA won't be back any time soon, sadly
Mwa-ha-ha-ha! Eccentric billionaire Musk gets his PRIVATE SPACEPORT
In the Lone Star State, perhaps appropriately enough
MARS NEEDS OCEANS to support life - and so do exoplanets
Just being in the Goldilocks zone doesn't mean there'll be anyone to eat the porridge
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Diary note: Pluto's close-up is a year from … now!
New Horizons is less than a year from the dwarf planet
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
prev story

Whitepapers

Seven Steps to Software Security
Seven practical steps you can begin to take today to secure your applications and prevent the damages a successful cyber-attack can cause.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.
Consolidation: the foundation for IT and business transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.