2014 Science Breakthrough of the Year: Rosetta Spacecraft

2014 Science Breakthrough of the Year: Rosetta Spacecraft Photo Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0-igo (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0-igo)], via Wikimedia Commons

A close encounter with an alien visitor.


A close encounter with an alien visitor. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Today on Science Update, the number one Science Breakthrough of the Year, as determined by the editors of Science magazine. It’s the spectacular rendezvous of the Rosetta spacecraft and comet 67P, a visitor from the Kuiper Belt beyond planet Neptune. Science deputy news editor Robert Koontz:

One of the big questions that scientists wonder about is, these Kuiper Belt comets, are they pristine? Are they really made of the original material from the solar system, in which case they’ll tell us a lot about where the Earth and the other planets came from. Or, have they been altered? Cause every time you go round the sun, you can have chemical reactions.

Among the questions to be answered is whether comets are responsible for delivering water to Earth, or whether our water arose from other sources. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

What makes the rendezvous of the Rosetta spacecraft with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko a 2014 Science Breakthrough of the Year? This breakthrough captured people's imaginations with a series of photographs and a nail-biting descent of the Philae lander to the surface of the comet. On top of the public interest and, more important, is the data about the comet being gathered from the Rosetta spacecraft.

Rosetta is a a robotic space probe built and launched by the European Space Agency in 2004. During its ten years in space, flight engineers put Rosetta through a series of orbital tricks in order to get it lined up with comet 67P's elliptical 6.5-year orbit. It caught up with the comet in August 2014.

Since that time, Rosetta has examined more than two-thirds of the comet's surface. Some of the discoveries made so far include a landscape that is a mix of regions covered in thick dust and others defined by rocky cliffs and canyons; cracks—some as long as 500 meters—covering many of the cliff faces; and jets of gas, caused by the transformation of the comet's subsurface ice deposits as it gets closer to the sun, that have been seen rising from the surface.

Along with Philae, its lander module, Rosetta will continue to perform a detailed study of comet 67P's nucleus and its environment for nearly two years. The scientists behind this mission hope that its orbit around comet 67P will help them garner information on the primordial ingredients that helped to jump-start life on Earth. But how can a comet help scientists learn more about how life may have started on Earth? Comets are considered the primitive building blocks of the solar system and likely helped "seed" the Earth with water, and maybe even life. By studying the nature of the comet’s dust and gas, it is hoped that Rosetta will help scientists learn more about the role of comets in the evolution of the solar system.

Indeed, the big breakthrough for Rosetta may be yet to come. As Michael A'Hearn, a planetary scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, explains, "The breakthrough is yet to come, and it will come from having the orbiter stay with the comet."

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. Why did Science magazine choose the rendezvous of the Rosetta spacecraft with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko as its 2014 breakthrough of the year?
  2. When was Rosetta launched and how did the flight engineers get it to line up with the comet?
  3. What has been discovered about the comet so far?
  4. How long will Rosetta orbit comet 67P?
  5. What are scientists hoping to discover by studying this comet?

You may want to check out these other Science Updates to learn more about space exploration:

  • Habitable Exoplanet explores how scientists in France have identified the first planet beyond Earth that could support life as we know it.
  • In Asteroid Deflection, you'll learn about the likelihood of asteroids smashing into the Earth and what scientists are doing to try to prevent that from happening.

If you're interested in finding out more about Rosetta, you can follow Science magazine's Breakthrough of the Year.

Going Further

For Educators

The Rosetta mission and the landing of the Philae lander on the comet 67P can be a great source of inspiration for your students and encourage them to explore science fields like astronomy. You can extend the learning by helping your students explore how life may have begun on Earth in Life from Space.

In Asteroid Watch, students can hear how a project of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Asteroid Watch, will allow citizens to track nearby asteroids online.

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