The Rosetta Spacecraft Is Our First Asteroid Lander
While NASA’s asteroid-capturing mission remains grounded from a lack of Congressional funding, a similar and equally ambitious ESA program is nearing fruition. In the coming months, the Rosetta spacecraft and its integrated Philae probe will become the first man-made objects to not only orbit an asteroid but land on it as well. Here’s how they’ll do it.
The European Space Agency began work on the Rosetta spacecraft in the early 1990s as part of the Horizon 2000 missions, and launched the spacecraft towards its target, 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, in March of 2004 aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. For nearly a decade, the spacecraft has slowly wound its way to towards the asteroid but is expected to finally arrive in November of next year.
Once the Rosetta reaches 67P, it will spend an additional 17 months orbiting the asteroid. The Rosetta orbiter packs a dozen instruments including various infrared, ultraviolet, optical, and spectroscopic imaging systems as well as microwave and radar sounders and a variety of gas and particle analysers. These systems will allow the orbiter to study both the surface structure and core of the asteroid—as well as its chemical composition—before attempting the a risky landing manoeuvre with the Philae probe.