Ever dance with a comet in the pale sunlight? Today, after a 10-year, 3.5-billion-mile game of cosmic catch-up, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft has finally met Comet C-G and will waltz across the stars alongside it for the next 18 months, studying the comet's mysterious composition and gases, and will even drop a lander onto its pitted surface. After a flawlessly executed engine burn, Rosetta is now 62 miles (100 kilometers) from the comet's surface and will soon enter orbit around it. This historic event places a manmade robotic probe around a comet for the first time, with the pair now flying 251 million miles from Earth on their way toward the sun.
Rosetta "gives you a front-seat, ride-along vision of what the comet's going to do and how a comet works," says the ESA's Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor. "This is really a big leap forward. It's going to be an awesome ride. Stay tuned."
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, nicknamed Comet C-G, was discovered in 1969 by Ukrainian astronomers Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko and circles the sun once every 6.5 years. The probe, crafted with the cooperation of the United States and the European Space Agency, is reported to have cost $1.7 billion. Rosetta's small comet lander, the Philae, was named after a famous obelisk found near the Nile River that allowed for translation of the Egyptian language, much like the legendary Rosetta Stone.
Rosetta has already captured some amazing photos of the duck-shaped comet during its rendezvous and determined that the surface is too warm to be totally covered in ice. As the pair nears the sun, a spectacular tail and halo will erupt in a cosmic lightshow to be documented it its entirety. Over the next six months, Rosetta will get down to the business of mapping and analyzing the comet's surface, dropping down to 20 miles or less from its crust.
Rosetta was first launched back in 2004 and was required to complete a series of course corrections, burns and maneuvers in order to intersect Comet C-G. After cruising past Jupiter in 2011 and doing a buzz-by of asteroids Steins and Lutetia, the probe was put into hibernation for three years, then reawakened in January of this year for its big date with destiny.
Check out the Rosetta mission video below and follow its live progress at the ESA's site here.
"We've arrived. Ten years we've been in the car waiting to get to scientific Disneyland, and we haven't even gotten out of the car yet and look at what's outside the window," said Mark McCaughrean, senior scientific adviser with the ESA's Directorate of Science and Robotic Exploration. "It's just astonishing."