The European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta robotic spacecraft has finally set its sights on its final destination, a comet name 67P/Churumov-Gerasimenko.
The Rosetta is part of the ESA Horizon 2000 series of missions. It was designed with the final goal of orbiting and landing on its target comet bringing back valuable data that will eventually comprise the most detailed study ever conducted on a comet.
The Rosetta was named after the famous Rosetta Stone, which was used to decipher and understand ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The spacecraft was launched on March 2, 2004 beginning its long journey into space. After going into hibernation in June 2011, the spacecraft spent almost two and a half years in a dormant state.
The Rosetta finally woke up from deep-space hibernation earlier this year beginning its final approach to the target comet. Two months after waking up, the Rosetta took the "first light" images of its destination using the onboard OSIRIS wide-angle camera and narrow angle camera. OSIRIS stands for Optical, Spectroscopic and Infrared Remore Imaging System and it was developed with the help of the Max-Planck-Institut für Sonnensystemforschung in Germany. The images were taken by the spacecraft last Match 20 and March 21 giving ESA scientists a glimpse of the 67P/Churumov-Gerasimenko comet.
"Finally seeing our target after a 10 year journey through space is an incredible feeling," said Holger Sierks, the OSIRIS Principal Investigator from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research. "These first images taken from such a huge distance show us that OSIRIS is ready for the upcoming adventure."
2014 marks the 10th year since the Rosetta's launch and the mission is nearing completion. The spacecraft is now approximately five million kilometers away from its destination. Due to the significant distance remaining, the images it sent back was taken using 60 to 300 second exposures with the OSIRIS wide-angle and narrow angle camera. Even with the length of time required for the exposures, the comet is still only a small speck in the images.
"This is a great start to our instrument commissioning period and we are looking forward to having all 11 instruments plus lander Philae back online and ready for arriving at the comet in just a few month's time," says Matt Taylor, ESA's Rosetta project scientist.
Since the Rosetta is now millions of kilometers away from Earth, sending back the images took around 37 minutes. Moreover, ESA scientists had to wait one hour per image for the download to be completed.