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The comet Cheryumov-Gerasimenko seems to be shaped like a rubber duckie (© Holger Leue/Corbis)

The ESA is on a Mission to Harpoon a Duck-Shaped Comet

As if catching a comet wasn't already hard enough

smithsonian.com

When we last left the European Space Agency's Rosetta probe it was just about to wake up from a nine year-long slumber. Rosetta had been cruising for most of its 3 billion mile trip, and in January it needed some last minute course corrections to really home in on its target, the comet Cheryumov-Gerasimenko. 

Well, Rosetta has successfully risen and nearly caught up to the comet. The plan, once it gets there, is to survey the comet and then use a small lander to harpoon it as it races toward the Sun. It's "a long-planned get-together," according to the European Space Agency, which launched a "Rosetta, are we there yet?" media campaign earlier this month.

There's just one problem with the destination, revealed in pictures that Rosetta sent back when it was just 7,000 miles away. Cheryumov-Gerasimenko appears to be a two and a half mile-long duck made of dust and ice. That certainly won't make it any easier to land.

Nature explains that the shape is likely the result of a "contact binary," two smaller comets stuck together. The team that took the images explained to Nature why the odd shape is a problem: 

Trouble could arise if the comet’s two pieces have different densities, so that their gravitational fields would have different strengths. The irregular shape might also make it harder to comprehensively image the comet. And if the lander ends up in the crevasse between the two parts, communicating with it could be difficult.

None of this should ultimately stop Rosetta from completing her task. She's scheduled to land on Comet Duck on August 6th.

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About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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