Mission control scientists cheered today as they played cosmic billiards with a European comet probe. They bounced their Rosetta spacecraft off the red ball – planet Mars – by flying it within 155 miles of its surface.
The manouevre has sent the three-ton probe heading back towards the blue ball – Earth – for another “bounce” in November.
European space scientist are using the peculiar route through the solar system to help Rosetta build up speed by using the planets’ gravity.
The flybys will catapult it towards a comet called Churyumov Gerasimenko in 2014 when it will plant a lander called Philae on its surface.
UK Professor Ian Wright, of the Open University, who built the UK’s ill-fated Beagle 2 probe, is in charge of the lander. It is expected to uncover clues to the early days of the universe. Comets are the oldest and most primitive bodies in the solar system and could have brought life to Earth.
This lander, a miniature chemical laboratory, will analyse the comet’s surface and nucleus. The Rosetta probe will then chase the comet for a year as it heads towards the inner solar system at 62,000mph.
The wealth of information gathered if the mission succeeds will build on the amazing results from Nasa’s Deep Impact probe which blew a hole in another comet, Tempel 1, in July 2005.
The European Space Agency’s Director of Science, David Southwood, was at mission control at Darmstadt, Germany, today. He said: “Today we have reached another milestone on the way to finding an answer to questions such as whether life on Earth began with the help of comets.”
Rosetta took the above dramatic colour photo of Mars as it headed toward closest approach on Saturday. ESA scientists described it as better than Hubble. Another, narrow-angle camera called OSIRIS imaged cloud structure, such as that shown here, in the upper Martian atmosphere. Photos: ESA.
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