Rosetta’s 10 Year Journey To 67P/C-G


Still in a space exploration mood I thought I’d go check out what was currently going on out there. It was with a little surprise I found I’d missed Rosetta’s rendezvous with its target, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, on the 6th of this month. This makes Rosetta the first spacecraft to perform more than a flyby of a comet. It has been theorised that comets provided most of the water on Earth and may have even been the source of the precursors for life (or life itself). For this reason, comets are of huge scientific interest.

annotated map of asteroid 21-Lutetia

Not only will Rosetta map and analyse 67P/C-G during its year-long orbit, but in November there will be an attempt to dispatch a lander to the surface for a more detailed analysis. Given the complexity of the task this will be a huge feat of science and engineering.

To get to its destination Rosetta orbited the sun five times, made three flybys of Earth, and one of Mars to build up the required speed. To this point in it’s 10 years in space, the craft has traveled 6.4 billion KM, that’s almost four and a half times the distance of Jupiter to the Sun (space is kind’a big). Additionally Rosetta performed flybys of asteroids (21) Lutetia (a massive 100km rock) and (2867) Steins.

Rosetta orbits the sun five times building speed to reach target
Credit: ESA/NASA

Other links:

The Mars Underground

As so often happens, I was researching a topic for a post on another blog (on a completely unrelated topic) when I came across a thought-provoking documentary, The Mars Underground. The documentary explores the history of plans for manned missions to Mars (from a US NASA led perspective), and beyond to a practical future of exploration. We see how, time and again, politics, both on the national and internal NASA level derailed human expansion into space.

Doom and gloom of politics and bureaucracies

As someone who believes the richest future for humanity involves spreading across space, I found the first part of the documentary dredging up my most pessimistic ideas of what we, as a species set on endlessly, violently competing against itself. On top of the political dynamic are problems of cost, and technological feasibility. A proposal by Robert Zubrin and David Baker, known as Mars Direct, shows how a series of mission to Mars can be done with current technology and within NASA’s current budget. This is what the whole documentary drives towards. We can get to Mars now. We could be there already and possibly be moving along in developing a permanent base.

Green Mars

The documentary finishes with discussing terraforming Mars. The idea is not so far fetched as some sci-fi representations. Zurbin suggests that using factories to produce “super greenhouse gasses” the planet’s temperature could be raised by 10c within a few decades. At that point Co2 trapped in the soil would begin to release, becoming a self-sustaining process. With a thickening atmosphere, air pressure increases, and eventually people would be able to move about the surface without bulky pressure suits. That in itself would be amazing. I’d happily settle for wondering the Martian equatorial wastes with an oxygen mask. Better yet, water trapped in the soil will have been melting for some time, creating a paradise for vegetation (creating oxygen).

Assuming we don’t discover a feasible way to speed up the oxygenation of the atmosphere it would be tens of thousands of years before the atmosphere were breathable. In that time Mars would become virtually unrecognisable as the planet it is today. Who want’s to bet technologies that speed the process won’t be discovered? I certainly don’t, not that it is likely I’d be around to claim my winnings or payout any losses.

It is this last part of the documentary that gives me that thrill that comes with daring to imagine the possibilities that technology, vision, and will can unlock. The possibility that our species will not wither away on Earth till the sun boils the seas, or more likely, we succumb to any combination of catastrophic natural and/or self-created disasters. The possibility that we will become a fully-fledged spacefaring species gives me all sorts of warm fuzzies. Then it’s onto the generation ships and on out into the galaxy, but that’s a topic for another day.

I believe the following video is the 2006 version. The 2011 Director’s Cut contains some significant updates. Unfortunately I haven’t found a streaming or DVD available in Australia, but I did find The Mars Underground: Updated Edition – Director’s Cut on Amazon US.