A GROUNDBREAKING mission to land a probe on a comet is one step closer as the Rosetta probe, funded by the Swindon-based UK Space Agency, returns after a two year absence.
Rosetta, which was launched ten years ago, is preparing to link up with the comet 67P as it approaches the sun.
Powered by solar energy, the probe has been hibernating since June 2011, and made first contact with earth at 10am today.
The ambitious project will see Rosetta attempt to land on the comet, and staff at the UK Space Agency are crossing their fingers as a decade of work nears completion.
Rosemarie Young, programme manager for the Rosetta launch, said: “This is the first time we have been able to attempt a landing on a comet.
“The Japanese have done a comet return mission, but this is the first of its kind. I think we have got to get through these first steps, but there are a number of risks at each stage.”
“It launched 10 years ago, and in that time it has been round several planets, as it does a sling shot movement which has taken it a long way out of our reach.
“It passed earth a few times and linked up with some asteroids to take some photos of the surface.
“It relies on solar panels, and has got very long arms but while going away from the sun it would have lost a lot of power. For that reason it went into hibernation stage in June 2011. It has got an on board clock, and has been scheduled to wake up today. Once we establish contact with it we will begin receiving information and be able to relay instructions.
“It has been put out just to link up with this one comet. We will be looking to see what its composition and origins might be. Comets have some of the most primordial materials in the solar system, so this will help us find out how the solar system was created.
“There are two parts to it, the orbiter and the launcher. This evening they should be able to hear something back from it, then they will know that it is working and start to communicate more thoroughly. We cannot be certain of anything, because it has been a long time and it is old technology.”
The project will start so see some results after the probe joins the path of the comet this summer.
“It has gone out into a belt of asteroids before it comes back in,” added Rosemarie. “It is due to meet up with the comet in August, and at that point the orbiter will go around the comet.
“It will begin mapping it and trying to find some suitable landing sites for the lander itself. The lander will then be released in November, and we will have some control of it as it goes down.
“The lander will then be left on the comet, and that is where it will end its life.”