Comet-chasing spacecraft wakes from deep sleep

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

comet chase
Rosetta orbiting comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

After slumbering for more than two and a half years, Europe’s space probe Rosetta will finally awaken and continue its comet hunting mission.

The target comet, called 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, goes around Earth approximately every 6.5 years and travels at a speed of roughly 24,600 mph. Rosetta was launched in March 2004, but it needed to collect speed before it could chase the ultra-fast space rock.

First, Rosetta orbited around Earth to gain momentum, then it spun around both Mars and Earth in order to slingshot more swiftly.

Rosetta reached the crucial speed in June 2011 after passing Earth for a 3rd time. Then, the probe began its deep sleep to conserve power before flying 497 million miles into deep space. See, there was no way it could be that far from the Sun and use its solar panels efficiently. Now that the spacecraft is relatively close to the Sun, its internal clock can awaken the 6,600 pound machine and let scientists on Earth know that everything is okay.

“It will be transmitting just the ‘carrier signal’, so at that point there’s no data coming down from the spacecraft,” explained Andrea Accomazzo, Rosetta’s operations manager. “Although, we will have no information from the spacecraft, we will know just from that transmission that it must have done everything it had to do automatically and is in a safe status; and that everything that happens next is in our hands.”

From there, Rosetta will spend  a few months observing the comet before actually launching a smaller probe called Philae to land on the rock in August 2014. Researchers hope they will find clues about the universe’s birth.

Images courtesy of ESA.