Europe’s Space Agency Is Going to Harpoon a Comet And Ride It Into the Sun

A three billion mile hunt will climax soon when Rosetta, quite literally, harpoons a comet

Rosetta eyeing the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko
Rosetta eyeing the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko ESA

The European Space Agency is gearing up to do its best Captain Ahab. For nine years the ESA’s Rosetta probe has been careening through the solar system, inching closer to its target. Rosetta swung by Mars and the Earth, using the planets’ gravitational pulls like a slingshot, picking up speed. In 2011, Rosetta went to sleep—a bid to save energy during its three billion mile endurance race. But in January the probe will wake up and prepare to catch its quarry—the comet Cheryumov-Gerasimenko.

In August, says the BBC, Rosetta will catch up to the comet, which she’ll survey for the next three months. But then, in November, Rosetta’s mission will climax when the spacecraft, quite literally, harpoons the comet.

Using harpoons and screws, says the BBC, the Philae probe, which was carried by Rosetta all this time, will latch itself to the comet. Then, it will hold on as the two head towards the Sun. Or, at least, it will hold on as long as it can.

Comets are relics of the formation of the solar system. Back when the solar system was just a protoplanetary disc orbiting the newly formed Sun, and everything was banging around and clumping together, some of that material went on to become the planets, and some became asteroids and comets. For this reason astronomers have been fascinated with tracking down these celestial fossils.

As this particular comet—a big ball of frozen gas and ice—heats up it will begin to break down, venting gas into space. “How long Philae could withstand any outgassing as the ices heat up on approach to the Sun is anyone’s guess. Will 67-P be a “bucking bronco”?” asks the BBC.

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