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INFO 11-1997: ESA's Rosetta mission and the puzzles that Hale-Bopp left behind

INFO 11-1997: ESA's Rosetta mission and the puzzles that Hale-Bopp left behind

3 April 1997

While Comet Hale-Bopp steams away into the outer darkness, not to return to the Sun's vicinity for many centuries, the European Space Agency and multinational teams of space scientists are finalizing plans to examine another comet at very close quarters, in the Rosetta mission.

The scientific payload was confirmed by ESA's Science Programme Committee in February. Now the scientists must perfect the full range of ultra-sensitive yet spaceworthy instruments in good time for Rosetta's despatch by an Ariane 5 launcher in January 2003. And even as most of the world was admiring Comet Hale-Bopp at its brightest, dedicated astronomers were examining the comet that will be Rosetta's target.

Although too faint to be seen with the naked eye, Comet Wirtanen made its closest approach to the Sun on 14 March and a fairly close approach to the Earth on 24 March. This comet comes back every 5.5 years. Rosetta will dance attendance on Comet Wirtanen, not at the next return in 2002, nor even in 2008, but in 2013. The project is an ambitious and patient effort to achieve the most thorough investigation of a comet ever attempted.

As the successor to ESA's highly successful Giotto mission to Halley's Comet and Comet Grigg-Skjellerup (which took seven years) Rosetta will spend eight years positioning itself. It will manoeuvre around the planets until it is shadowing Comet Wirtanen far beyond Mars, on nearly the same path around the Sun. In 2011 it will rendezvous with the comet and fly near it. In April 2012 Rosetta will go into a near orbit around Comet Wirtanen, and escort it for 17 busy months, as it flies in to make its closest approach to the Sun in September 2013, at the climax of the mission.

"The Giotto mission placed us at the forefront of cometary exploration," comments Roger Bonnet, ESA's director of science. "The motivation came from European scientists with a sharp sense of the special importance of comets for understanding the Solar System. The same enthusiasm drives us onward to Rosetta, which will ensure our continued leadership in this important branch of space science."

Scientific Tasks

During its prolonged operations in very close company with the comet's nucleus, Rosetta will map and examine its entire surface from distances of 10 to 50 kilometres with a set of remote-sensing instruments. As the spacecraft moves around the nucleus at a very leisurely walking pace, other onboard instruments will analyse the dust and vapours, which will emanate from Comet Wirtanen with ever-increasing vigour as the Sun's rays warm it.

Rosetta will drop a lander on to the comet's surface, for close inspection of its physical condition and chemical composition. The lander is a venture led by Germany, France and Italy, with participation from Austria, Finland, Hungary, Poland and the UK. As a box packed with scientific instruments and standing on three legs, the lander will be capable of anchoring itself to one spot and drilling into the surface.

It may also be able to hop like a flea to visit another part of the nucleus. A combination of solar energy and electric batteries will enable operations to last for several months. "The combination of Rosetta in orbit around the comet and the lander on its surface is very powerful from a scientific point of view," says Gerhard Schwehm, ESA's project scientist for Rosetta. "We shall watch Comet Wirtanen brewing up like a volcano as it feels the heat of the Sun. In place of hazy impressions of the nucleus of a comet half hidden by its dust clouds, we shall see all the details with unprecedented clarity."

Unanswered Questions

During and after the 1986 appearance of Halley's Comet, comet science made great progress. More recent comets have revealed important secrets to ESA's Infrared Space Observatory and to other space telescopes examining them at wavelengths unobservable from the Earth. Yet basic questions about comets remain unanswered.

Just as the Rosetta Stone was the key that unlocked the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs, so the Rosetta spacecraft is intended to decipher the meaning of comets and their role in the origin and history of the Solar System. Here are a few of the main puzzles.

  • What does a comet weigh? Guesses about the density of cometary material vary widely, and only an orbiting spacecraft can give exact measurements of the comet's volume and mass.
  • Is a comet a dirty snowball or an icy dirtball? In other words, is it made of ices contaminated with mineral and tarry dust, or is it a consolidation of dust coated with ices?
  • Why is the nucleus of a comet so dark? Giotto established that Halley's nucleus is like brownish-black velvet, absorbing 96 per cent of the sunlight falling on it. Is the colour due to a surface deposit of tarry dust, or is the interior dark too?
  • Why are small regions of a comet highly active when most of its surface is not? Multiple jets of dust seen emanating from Halley's Comet, and spectacularly from Comet Hale-Bopp, imply that certain hot-spots differ physically or chemically from the rest of the comet's surface.
  • Is a comet made as single piece, or does it consist of loosely joined blocks, as suggested by the Giotto images? This relates to the questions of how comets are built, and why they break up into smaller fragments, as seen spectacularly with Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 which hit Jupiter in 1994.
  • Does a dying comet evaporate and disappear, or does it simply exhaust the stocks of ice that drive the emissions of gas and dust from an active comet? If the latter answer is correct, dead comets persist long afterwards as dark, inactive masses of minerals and tar, and pose a lasting threat of collisions with the Earth.
  • What is a comet's exact composition? Many ingredients are known, and the approximate abundances of the main constituents. Details coming from Rosetta will pin down (1) how comets were fashioned from similar constituents of interstellar dust and (2) how comets contributed to building the planets, including the Earth, and stocking their atmospheres.
  • Is the tarry, carbon-rich material in comets a jumble of every kind of chemical that inorganic processes can make from carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen, or does it contain special compounds? This is relevant to assessing the role of comets in the origin of life on the Earth.

The comet specialist Uwe Keller of the Max-Planck Institut fur Aeronomie, Germany, is one of the Giotto veterans who has helped with the planning of Rosetta. He was in charge of Giotto's camera.

"Rosetta is the mission we are all waiting for," Dr Keller comments. "After I spent six years analysing our images of the Halley nucleus, I say that basic scientific assumptions about the nature of comets are still contradictory. We shall settle the arguments only by the close, prolonged inspection that Rosetta will make possible."

Engineering the Rosetta Mission

To build up the speed needed to adopt the same orbit around the Sun as Comet Wirtanen, Rosetta must steal energy of motion from the planets, in a swingby of Mars and two swingbys of the Earth. During its far-flung manoeuvres in pursuit of the comet, Rosetta will inspect the asteroids Mimistrobell and Rodari at close quarters. When Rosetta is far from the Earth, or on the wrong side of the Sun, communication will be difficult.

The spacecraft will therefore have a high degree of robotic self-reliance. It will also be capable of hibernating for more than two years without attention - a technique devised by ESA for the later stages of the Giotto mission.

Rosetta will rely on solar power, even when more than five times further than the Earth from the Sun. Special low-intensity solar cells are under development for Rosetta. Conditions in this farthest phase of Rosetta's voyage will be very chilly, but ESA's engineers are satisfied that the temperatures inside the spacecraft can be kept within limits by black paint, multilayer insulation and electric heaters. Despite its originality and sophistication, Rosetta will be just a flying box with solar arrays like wings, looking rather like a telecommunications satellite.

"Keep it simple," is the motto of John Credland, ESA's project manager for Rosetta. "Simplicity brings reliability," he explains, "and that is my overriding concern for the engineering of a spacecraft that has to survive and operate far from the Earth for nearly eleven years."

To command Rosetta, and to receive its signals carrying new of the comet, ESA will use a new 32-metre deep-space tracking antenna at Perth in Australia, and a 15-metre antenna in Spain. The spacecraft operations, especially in the near-comet phase of the mission, will be a novel experience for the controllers at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. The gravity of the comet will be weak, and Rosetta's manoeuvres around it will be like a ballet in slow motion. At around 10 kilometres distance, the spacecraft will travel at only 1-2 kilometres per hour in relation to the comet and take about a week to circle once around the nucleus. Sometimes Rosetta will swoop even closer to the comet's surface, to inspect possible landing sights and to drop the lander. The spacecraft's thrusters will adjust the orbit. To keep manoeuvres to a minimum, and so conserve fuel and avoid polluting the comet's environment, computer simulations will help the spacecraft navigators to predict the consequences of any manoeuvre for weeks in advance.

The Target Comet

Present-day space propulsion systems allow a rendezvous only with a comet with a predictable and relatively small orbit around the Sun. All comets of this kind are old, in the sense that they have visited the Sun's vicinity many times and are no longer vigorous in the dust and gas formation that makes their visible comas and tails. The second comet visited by Giotto, Comet Grigg-Skjellerup, was of this elderly kind.

From among several short-period candidates, the mission team chose Comet Wirtanen as Rosetta's target comet because it offered the quickest timetable between the launch of the spacecraft and the completion of the mission.

The comet was discovered by chance by Carl Wirtanen in 1948 on photographic plates at the Lick Observatory in California. In 1972 and 1984 encounters with the planet Jupiter reduced the size of Comet Wirtanen's orbit, and shortened the interval between its visits to the Sun from 6.65 to 5.5 years.

Despite many observations no one really knows the comet's mass, size and shape. The uncertainties are reflected in the computer simulations of manoeuvres near the comet. These cover a wide range of possibilities from a lightweight comet to a massive one, and from a small comet 1 kilometre in diameter to a large one 20 kilometres wide. The best estimate may be 1.5 kilometres. But it is in the nature of a voyage of exploration like Rosetta's that you don't know what you will find!

Last Update: 1 September 2019
25-Feb-2024 18:12 UT

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