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European Satellite Achieves Historic Rendezvous with Comet

by VOA News August 06, 2014

A European space probe has ended a decade-long race across the solar system to become the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet.

The European Space Agency's $1.7 billion Rosetta spacecraft entered into orbit 100 kilometers above the surface of the the Comet 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko comet early Wednesday morning, at a distance of more than 400 million kilometers from Earth.

Rosetta will escort Comet 67P for the next year and observe it as it heads towards the sun. The highlight of the mission will come in November, when Rosetta will release a small probe that will land on Comet 67P -- the first ever spacecraft to accomplish such a feat.

Named after stone

Scientists hope Rosetta -- named after the stone that helped unlock the hieroglyphic language of the ancient Egyptians -- will provide more clues into the frozen and rocky leftovers from the creation of the solar system.

'The challenge is that we know almost nothing about the comet. And we knew even less when we built the probe. We didn't know how the surface (of the comet) looks like, whether it is soft or hard like ice. The day-night cycle is fairly known. But until recently we didn't even know what the comet looks like, what shape it has. And that is the big difference to missions where we land on the moon or on Mars, where we have a pretty good notion of the body we intend to land on,'' explained Stephan Ulamec, Rosetta Project Manager.

Scientists believe comets contain the origins of life on Earth, delivering water and other essential components as they slammed into the planet's surface.

Rosetta has traveled over six billion kilometers since blasting off from earth in March 2004. It made a series of flybys of Mars and Earth so it could pick up speed and positioned itself into the same orbital path as Comet 67P. As it flew further and further from the sun, Rosetta was put into hibernation for two years to conserve power, before engineers brought it back to life in January.

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