Q&A: Comet-Landing Spacecraft Rosetta to Make History

Text by Kassandra Bucher

Over the past decade, Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft has been traveling toward a rendezvous with the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It reached its destination in August and has been studying the gasses and dust near the comet, searching for clues about the history of the heavens and the origins of life on Earth.

But on November 12, the spacecraft is poised to deliver its payload and attempt the first-ever soft landing on a comet with Philae, its lander. To mark this historic event, swissnex San Francisco and the Chabot Space & Science Center host a live feed in Chabot’s full dome planetarium beginning.

On hand remotely will be scientist Kathrin Altwegg of the University of Bern, Switzerland, who leads the Rosina experiment, the two big mass spectrometers aboard Rosetta. She will be watching the landing from the European Space Agency’s mission control center and talk with us via a live feed. Here’s what she has to say about why this mission is so thrilling and why you should join us to witness history in the making!

Q: What is Rosetta?

bw_Kathrin_Altwegg_Principal_Investigator_ROSINA_Rosetta_Orbiter_Spectrometer_for_Ion_and_Neutral_Analysis_ITV_in_German_video_production_full copyA: Rosetta, a European Space Agency (ESA) mission, was launched in 2004 and is the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet. After more than 10 years of waiting we finally will try to probe the comet from up close, sampling its surface and subsurface.

Q: What makes the Rosetta mission so special?

A: It’s the first time a lander is put softly on a comet, equipped with eight instruments, which will give the ground truth to the instruments on the orbiter.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in this project?

A: It’s extremely challenging putting something on a tiny object, just 4 km across, on a comet that is more than 450 million kilometers away. This needs extreme precision work by the operations team. This is made even more challenging by the roughness, the irregular shape of our rubber duck [the comet looks like a rubber ducky in some images, and has been given this nickname], and the unknown strength of the surface—will it bounce back or sink in?

Join us at Chabot to watch the historic landing.