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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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Venus Express Survived Its Dive!

Illustration of ESA's Venus Express aerobraking in Venus' upper atmosphere (ESA)

Illustration of ESA’s Venus Express aerobraking in Venus’ upper atmosphere (ESA)

Having made over 3,000 orbits of Venus over the past eight years, ESA’s Venus Express has (as of May 15) completed its science mission and is now in the final few months of its operational life. With a nothing-left-to-lose attitude, the spacecraft recently made a daring and risky dive down into the upper layers of the planet’s thick atmosphere, coming within 80 miles of Venus’ broiling surface on July 12 — that’s the closest any human-made spacecraft have gotten to Venus since the Soviet Vega balloon-and-lander missions of 1985!

As dangerous as it may have been for the spacecraft, Venus Express survived the encounter and grabbed some valuable data about the planet’s atmosphere along the way. It’s now working its way up to a higher altitude orbit, but there’s no escaping the fact that its fuel reserves are nearly depleted and it will soon be back on its way down into Venus’ atmosphere on a mission-ending, one-way trip.

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here.

Cassini Marks Ten Discovery-Filled Years at Saturn

Cassini by the Numbers: an infographic of the spacecraft's achievements over the past decade (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Cassini by the Numbers: an infographic of the spacecraft’s achievements over the past decade (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Just a week after Curiosity celebrated its first Martian year in Gale Crater and we have yet another milestone anniversary in Solar System exploration: as of 10:48 p.m. EDT tonight Cassini will have been in orbit around Saturn for a full decade!

“There are times when human language is inadequate, when emotions choke the mind, when the magnitude of events cannot properly be conveyed by the same syllables we use to navigate everyday life. The evening of June 30, 2004 was such a time.” 

– Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader, CICLOPS “Captain’s Log” on June 30, 2014

That’s ten years and over 2 billion miles of discoveries and explorations of our Solar System’s most majestic planet and its incredibly varied family of moons. Over the course of its primary mission and three extended missions, we have been able to get a close-up look at Saturn and its moons like never before, witnessing first-hand the changes that occur as their seasons change. What’s been discovered by the Cassini mission about Saturn has offered invaluable insight into the evolution of our entire Solar System, as well as planets that could be found elsewhere in our galaxy.

“Having a healthy, long-lived spacecraft at Saturn has afforded us a precious opportunity,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “By having a decade there with Cassini, we have been privileged to witness never-before-seen events that are changing our understanding of how planetary systems form and what conditions might lead to habitats for life.”

Launched on October 15, 1997, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft established orbit around Saturn on June 30, 2004 (July 1, UTC).

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Hubble Spots Saturn’s Northern Lights

Hubble image of aurora on Saturn (NASA/ESA)

Hubble image of aurora on Saturn (NASA/ESA)

Earth isn’t the only planet with auroras — any world with a magnetic field and an atmosphere can get a light show around its poles when its star’s wind is blowing hard enough!* The image above shows Saturn’s northern lights, as seen in ultraviolet light by the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys in April 2013.

See the full lineup of images below:

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