The international Rosetta mission is the third Cornerstone Mission in the European Space Agency’s long-term space science programme. Launched in March 2004, the mission’s objective is to rendezvous with the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014.
The spacecraft will orbit the comet at a distance of one kilometre for nearly two years, studying the comet’s nucleus and its environment, and a lander will carry out surface-science investigations and analyses on Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
The comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko has a nucleus about four kilometres wide and orbits around the Sun every 6.6 years, between 186 million kilometres and 857 million kilometres from the Sun.
In order to reach its destination Rosetta increased its speed by gaining momentum during its journey through a sequence of four planetary swing-bys in the gravity fields of the Earth and Mars. In 2008 Rosetta passed by the asteroid 2867 Steins and provided a unique opportunity to characterise the surface and environment of the rare E-type asteroid. In 2010 Rosetta flew by another asteroid, allowing scientists to learn more about 21 Lutetia.
Previous missions have show that comets contain complex organic molecules – compounds that are rich in carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Interestingly, these are the elements which make up nucleic acids and amino acids, the essential ingredients for life as we know it. Rosetta may help us to find the answer to the question of whether life on Earth began with the help of comet seeding.
Astrium Germany was prime contractor for the Rosetta mission, responsible for building the spacecraft. Other contributions were provided by Astrium UK who built the spacecraft platform and Astrium France who supplied the spacecraft avionics.