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Yes, Rosetta, We Are There! ESA’s Spacecraft Arrives at Comet 64P/C-G and Returns Amazing Images

OSIRIS image of the surface of comet 64P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from 130 km (ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

OSIRIS image of the surface of comet 64P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from 130 km (ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

A comparison of images from OSIRIS on Aug. 3 and Aug. 6

A comparison of images from OSIRIS on Aug. 3 and Aug. 6

We don’t have to keep asking “Rosetta are we there yet?” anymore – we’re there! This morning, August 6 2014, Rosetta made its arrival at the ~4-km-wide comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and soon sent back some incredible pictures of its surface taken with its OSIRIS science imager. The one above was acquired at a distance of 130 km (80 miles) and shows some very rugged terrain and large boulders, and but some rather smooth, flat regions too. (The same area had been imaged a few days earlier – see at right –  but the closer distance obviously allows for much more detail.) Congratulations to ESA and Rosetta for becoming the first mission to rendezvous with a comet! Now the real science can begin!

“Europe’s Rosetta is now the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet, a major highlight in exploring our origins,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General. “Discoveries can start.”

“After ten years, five months and four days traveling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometers, we are delighted to announce finally ‘we are here.’

Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General

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Get Ready for Rosetta’s Rendezvous with a Comet!

Rosetta is just hours away from its first rendezvous with Comet 67P/C-G, 404.19 million km away. (Source: ESA's Where Is Rosetta visualization)

Rosetta is now just hours away from its first rendezvous with Comet 67P/C-G, 404.19 million km from Earth. (Source: ESA’s Where Is Rosetta visualization)

How exciting – it’s almost time! After over ten years of travel ESA’s comet chaser Rosetta is mere hours away from its first rendezvous with the 4-km-wide comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko! We’ve all been seeing better and better images of the comet since it first became visible to Rosetta a few months back, with the past couple of weeks bringing us some exceptionally intriguing views as the spacecraft closes the gap, but on Wednesday, August 6 Rosetta will have officially arrived — and I can only imagine what we’ll be seeing then!

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Comet, Dead Ahead! ESA’s Rosetta Is Only Days Away From Its Target

Comet 67P/C-G imaged by Rosetta's NAVCAM on July 31, 2014 (post-processed)

Comet 67P/C-G imaged by Rosetta’s NAVCAM on July 31, 2014 (post-processed)

She’s almost there! After a decade of soaring through the inner solar system ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft (and Philae lander) are now on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the ultimate goal of the mission. On August 6 the spacecraft will approach within 100 km of the comet and attempt to establish orbit — if successful, Rosetta will become the first spacecraft ever to do so!

In the meantime we are getting treated to better and better images of the comet’s 4-km-wide nucleus as Rosetta closes the gap. The picture above was taken just yesterday, July 31, with the spacecraft’s navigational camera. Details of 67P’s unexpected double-lobed contact binary shape are becoming more evident, with surface features coming into view. As we’ve discovered several times before, every comet is a unique world – and 67P is no exception! Click below for an even better view…

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Rosetta’s Comet Looks Like a Giant Peep

Video of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko made from images acquired by the approaching Rosetta on July 14, 2014.

Video of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s nucleus made from images acquired by the approaching Rosetta on July 14, 2014.

Surprise!* Rosetta’s target comet 67P/C-G is apparently a contact binary, with a nucleus made of two objects joined at a point and held together by gravity based on the latest images in from the spacecraft. Tumbling through space on its orbit around the Sun, it bears an uncanny resemblance to… a giant marshmallow Peep. (The chick kind, not the bunny.)

At nearly 4 km across at its longest dimension, that’s one big Peep!

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Hubble Eyes Mars-Bound Comet

Hubble image of comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring), before and after processing. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)

Hubble image of comet C/2013 A1 (Siding Spring), before and after processing. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J.-Y. Li (Planetary Science Institute)

Comet Siding Spring won’t hit Mars on October 19 but it will come really, really close: 86,000 miles, or just a bit over 1/3 the distance between the Moon and Earth. That’s like having a bullet from a sniper positioned a mile away knock your hat off! (Given that you were the target of a military-class sniper, not sure why you would be. Is there something I don’t know about you?) And while it won’t get bright enough or close enough to Earth to become a spectacle in our night sky, exploration robots on and around Mars should be in for quite a show.

Earlier this month, as Siding Spring (aka C/2013 A1) passed within the orbit of Jupiter, the Hubble Space Telescope turned its gaze onto it and captured the image above showing the comet’s icy 12,000-mile-wide coma and, after some processing, what appear to be two strong jets spraying out of its as-yet-unseen nucleus. These observations — and more like them in the months to come — will help scientists determine Siding Spring’s motion and rotation rate and what sort of interaction Mars (and its resident robots) can expect from its ejected material this fall.

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

Wake Up, Rosetta!

Frame from 'Chasing A Comet – The Rosetta Mission'. Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

Frame from ‘Chasing A Comet – The Rosetta Mission’. Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

It’s being called “the most important alarm clock in the solar system” —  tomorrow, Monday January 20, at 10:00 GMT (which is 5:00 a.m. for U.S. East Coasters like me) the wake-up call will ring for ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, bringing it out of hibernation after over two and a half years in preparation of its long-awaited rendezvous with a comet later this year.

The signal will incite the warming of Rosetta’s star trackers, which allow it to determine its orientation in space. Six hours later its thrusters will fire to stop its slow rotation and ensure that its solar arrays are receiving the right amount of sunlight. Using its thawed-out star trackers Rosetta will aim its transmitter towards Earth and, from 500 million miles (807 million km) away, will send a thumbs-up message that everything is OK and it’s time to get to work.

From that distance the transmission will take 45 minutes to reach us. Rosetta’s first signal is expected between 17:30 – 18:30 GMT (12:30 – 1:30 p.m. ET).

And, if all is well, Rosetta has a very exciting year ahead! Read the rest of this article here.

UPDATE Jan. 20: Rosetta has awoken! This afternoon at 18:18 UTC, after 48 minutes of increasingly tense anticipation, a signal was received from the spacecraft by both NASA’s Deep Space Network in Goldstone, CA and the ground station in Canberra, Australia. Rosetta is up and running and so far seems to be in good condition — Go Rosetta and Philae! Read the full story from ESA here.

So… What’s Up With ISON?

Strongly-adjusted SOHO LASCO C3 image of ISON's remains as of Nov. 29 at 17:30 UT (2:30 pm EST)

Strongly-adjusted SOHO LASCO C3 image of ISON’s remains as of Nov. 29 at 17:30 UT (2:30 pm EST)

Animation of SOHO coronagraph images of ISON from Nov. 27-30, 2013 (ESA/NASA)

Animation of SOHO coronagraph images of ISON from Nov. 27-30, 2013 (ESA/NASA)

Yesterday sure was interesting. As the astronomical world, from scientists to journalists to enthusiasts alike, watched online in near real time as ISON came within its closest pass of the Sun — in literally ever — the comet, having spent the previous several hours brightening steadily, suddenly went dim as it traveled deep into the Sun’s outer corona. It appeared that it had fallen apart, disintegrating* into a smear of bright particles just as it began to round the Sun. Even as astronomers looked to spot a sungrazing ISON in several of NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory’s imaging fields, nothing was to be found, leading many to pronounce the billion-year-old icy visitor from the Oort Cloud dead on arrival.

But then, just as the Twitterverse was lamenting the loss of this year’s most famous comet, something reappeared… and even now, a full day later, they’re still not quite sure what.

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