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European spacecraft reaches comet after 10-year chase

Imagine undertaking a 10-year chase around the solar system. That’s exactly what the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft has been doing for the past decade and this week, she finally caught up with her target: Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Rosetta is now the first spacecraft ever to rendezvous with a comet, and in doing so, her team at ESA claim that she has opened a new chapter in Solar System exploration. As you read this, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and Rosetta lie 405 million kilometres from Earth, about half way between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, rushing towards the inner Solar System at nearly 55 000 kilometres per hour. The long sought-after target, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, is in an elliptical 6.5-year orbit that takes it from beyond Jupiter at its furthest point, to between the orbits of Mars and Earth at its closest to the Sun. The ESA says that Rosetta will be its constant companion now for over a year as they swing around the Sun and back out towards Jupiter again. However, the quest towards the comet was not straightforward. Since the launch in 2004, the spacecraft had to make three gravity-assist flybys of Earth and one of Mars to help it on course to its rendezvous with the comet. This complex course also allowed Rosetta to pass by asteroids Steins and Lutetia, obtaining unprecedented views and scientific data on these two objects. Unsurprisingly, the team at ESA is jubilant after successfully reaching the target of a decade-long odyssey. ‘After ten years, five months and four days travelling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometres, we are delighted to announce finally 'we are here',’ says Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's Director General. ‘Europe's Rosetta is now the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet, a major highlight in exploring our origins. The discoveries can begin.' Alvaro Giménez, ESA's Director of Science and Robotic Exploration, adds, ‘We have come an extraordinarily long way since the mission concept was first discussed in the late 1970s and approved in 1993, and now we are ready to open a treasure chest of scientific discovery that is destined to rewrite the textbooks on comets for even more decades to come.’ Rosetta is now just 100 km from the comet's surface, but it will edge closer still. Over the next six weeks, it will describe two triangular-shaped trajectories in front of the comet, first at a distance of 100 km and then at 50 km. Not content with one space history first, over next few months, the ESA team will begin final preparations for another: landing on a comet. Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist, concludes, ‘After landing, Rosetta will continue to accompany the comet until its closest approach to the Sun in August 2015 and beyond, watching its behaviour from close quarters to give us a unique insight and realtime experience of how a comet works as it hurtles around the Sun.’ It seems Rosetta’s travelling days are far from over! For further information, please visit: http://www.esa.int/ESAFor further information, please visit: http://www.esa.int/ESA

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