Rosetta (spacecraft)

For other uses, see Rosetta (disambiguation).

Rosetta spacecraft

Artist's illustration of Rosetta
Mission type Comet orbiter/lander
Operator ESA
COSPAR ID 2004-006A
SATCAT № 28169
Mission duration Final: 12 years, 6 months, 28 days
Spacecraft properties
Manufacturer Astrium
Launch mass Orbiter: 2,900 kg (6,400 lb)
Lander: 100 kg (220 lb)
Dry mass Orbiter: 1,230 kg (2,710 lb)
Payload mass Orbiter: 165 kg (364 lb)
Lander: 27 kg (60 lb)
Dimensions 2.8 × 2.1 × 2 m (9.2 × 6.9 × 6.6 ft)
Power 850 watts at 3.4 AU[1]
Start of mission
Launch date 2 March 2004, 07:17:51 (2004-03-02UTC07:17:51) UTC[2]
Rocket Ariane 5G+ V-158
Launch site Kourou ELA-3
Contractor Arianespace
End of mission
Disposal Deorbited
Last contact 30 September 2016, 10:39:28 (2016-09-30UTC10:39:29) UTC SCET
Landing site Sais, Ma'at region[3]
2 years, 55 days of operations at the comet
Flyby of Mars
Closest approach 25 February 2007
Distance 250 km (160 mi)
Flyby of 2867 Šteins
Closest approach 5 September 2008
Distance 800 km (500 mi)
Flyby of 21 Lutetia
Closest approach 10 July 2010
Distance 3,162 km (1,965 mi)
67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko orbiter
Orbital insertion 6 August 2014, 09:06 UTC[4]
Orbit parameters
Periapsis 29 km (18 mi)[5]
Band S band (low gain antenna)
X band (high gain antenna)
Bandwidth from 7.8 bit/s (S band)[6]
up to 91 kbit/s (X band)[7]

Rosetta mission insignia

Rosetta was a space probe built by the European Space Agency launched on 2 March 2004. Along with Philae, its lander module, Rosetta performed a detailed study of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P).[8][9] During its journey to the comet, the spacecraft flew by Mars and the asteroids 21 Lutetia and 2867 Šteins.[10][11][12]

On 6 August 2014, the spacecraft reached the comet and performed a series of manoeuvres to be captured in its orbit. On 12 November, its lander module Philae performed the first successful landing on a comet,[13] though its battery power ran out two days later.[14] Communications with Philae were briefly restored in June and July 2015, but due to diminishing solar power, Rosetta's communications module with the lander was turned off on 27 July 2016.[15] On 30 September 2016, the Rosetta spacecraft ended its mission by landing on the comet in its Ma'at region.[16][17]

The probe is named after the Rosetta Stone, a stele of Egyptian origin featuring a decree in three scripts. The lander is named after the Philae obelisk, which bears a bilingual Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription.

Mission overview

Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko in September 2014 as imaged by Rosetta

Rosetta was launched on 2 March 2004 from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket and reached Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 6 August 2014,[18] becoming the first spacecraft to orbit a comet.[19][20][21] (Previous missions had conducted successful flybys of seven other comets.)[22] It was one of ESA's Horizon 2000 cornerstone missions.[23] The spacecraft consisted of the Rosetta orbiter, which featured 12 instruments, and the Philae lander, with nine additional instruments.[24] The Rosetta mission orbited Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko for 17 months and was designed to complete the most detailed study of a comet ever attempted. The spacecraft was controlled from the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), in Darmstadt, Germany.[25] The planning for the operation of the scientific payload, together with the data retrieval, calibration, archiving and distribution, was performed from the European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC), in Villanueva de la Cañada, near Madrid, Spain.[26] It has been estimated that in the decade preceding 2014, some 2,000 people assisted in the mission in some capacity.[27]

In 2007, Rosetta made a Mars gravity assist (flyby) on its way to Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko.[28] The spacecraft also performed two asteroid flybys.[29] The craft completed its flyby of asteroid 2867 Šteins in September 2008 and of 21 Lutetia in July 2010.[30] Later, on 20 January 2014, Rosetta was taken out of a 31-month hibernation mode as it approached Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko.[31][32]

Rosetta's Philae lander successfully made the first soft landing on a comet nucleus when it touched down on Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 12 November 2014.[33][34][35] On 5 September 2016, ESA announced that the lander was discovered by the narrow-angle camera aboard Rosetta as the orbiter made a low, 2.7 km (1.7 mi) pass over the comet. The lander sits on its side wedged into a dark crevice of the comet, explaining the lack of electrical power to establish proper communication with the orbiter.[36]



During the 1986 approach of Halley's Comet, international space probes were sent to explore the comet, most prominent among them being ESA's Giotto.[37] After the probes returned valuable scientific information, it became obvious that follow-ons were needed that would shed more light on cometary composition and answer new questions.[38]

Both ESA and NASA started cooperatively developing new probes. The NASA project was the Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby (CRAF) mission.[39] The ESA project was the follow-on Comet Nucleus Sample Return (CNSR) mission.[40] Both missions were to share the Mariner Mark II spacecraft design, thus minimising costs. In 1992, after NASA cancelled CRAF due to budgetary limitations, ESA decided to develop a CRAF-style project on its own.[41] By 1993 it was evident that the ambitious sample return mission was infeasible with the existing ESA budget, so the mission was redesigned and subsequently approved by the ESA, with the final flight plan resembling the cancelled CRAF mission: an asteroid flyby followed by a comet rendezvous with in-situ examination, including a lander.[41] After the spacecraft launch, Gerhard Schwehm was named mission manager; he retired in March 2014.[27]


The probe is named after the Rosetta Stone, a stele of Egyptian origin featuring a decree in three scripts. The lander is named after the Philae obelisk, which bears a bilingual Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription. A comparison of its hieroglyphs with those on the Rosetta Stone catalysed the deciphering of the Egyptian writing system. Similarly, it is hoped that these spacecraft will result in better understanding of comets and the early Solar System.[42][43] In a more direct analogy to its namesake, the Rosetta spacecraft also carries a micro-etched nickel alloy Rosetta disc donated by the Long Now Foundation inscribed with 13,000 pages of text in 1,200 languages.[44]

Mission firsts

The Rosetta mission achieved many historic firsts.[45]

On its way to comet 67P, Rosetta passed through the main asteroid belt, and made the first European close encounter with several of these primitive objects. Rosetta was the first spacecraft to fly close to Jupiter's orbit using solar cells as its main power source.[46]

Rosetta was the first spacecraft to orbit a comet nucleus,[47] and was the first spacecraft to fly alongside a comet as it headed towards the inner Solar System. It became the first spacecraft to examine at close proximity the activity of a frozen comet as it is warmed by the Sun. Shortly after its arrival at 67P, the Rosetta orbiter dispatched the Philae lander for the first controlled touchdown on a comet nucleus. The robotic lander's instruments obtained the first images from a comet's surface and made the first in situ analysis of its composition.

Design and construction

The Rosetta bus is a 2.8 × 2.1 × 2.0 m (9.2 × 6.9 × 6.6 ft) central frame and aluminium honeycomb platform. Its total mass is approximately 3,000 kg (6,600 lb), which includes the 100 kg (220 lb) Philae lander and 165 kg (364 lb) of science instruments.[48] The Payload Support Module is mounted on top of the spacecraft and houses the scientific instruments, while the Bus Support Module is on the bottom and contains spacecraft support subsystems. Heaters placed around the spacecraft keep its systems warm while it is distant from the Sun. Rosetta's communications suite includes a 2.2 m (7.2 ft) steerable high-gain parabolic dish antenna, a 0.8 m (2.6 ft) fixed-position medium-gain antenna, and two omnidirectional low-gain antennas.[49]

Electrical power for the spacecraft comes from two solar arrays totalling 64 square metres (690 sq ft).[50] Each solar array is subdivided into five solar panels, with each panel being 2.25 × 2.736 m (7.38 × 8.98 ft). The individual solar cells are made of silicon, 200 μm thick, and 61.95 × 37.75 mm (2.44 × 1.49 in).[51] The solar arrays generate a maximum of approximately 1,500 watts at perihelion,[51] a minimum of 400 watts in hibernation mode at 5.2 AU, and 850 watts when comet operations begin at 3.4 AU.[49] Spacecraft power is controlled by a redundant Terma power module also used in the Mars Express spacecraft,[52][53] and is stored in four 10-A·h NiCd batteries supplying 28 volts to the bus.[49]

Main propulsion comprises 24 paired bipropellant 10 N thrusters,[50] with four pairs of thrusters being used for delta-v burns. The spacecraft carried 1,719.1 kg (3,790 lb) of propellant at launch: 659.6 kg (1,454 lb) of monomethylhydrazine fuel and 1,059.5 kg (2,336 lb) of dinitrogen tetroxide oxidiser, contained in two 1,108-litre (244 imp gal; 293 US gal) grade 5 titanium alloy tanks and providing delta-v of at least 2,300 metres per second (7,500 ft/s) over the course of the mission. Propellant pressurisation is provided by two 68-litre (15 imp gal; 18 US gal) high-pressure helium tanks.[54]

Rosetta was built in a clean room according to COSPAR rules, but "sterilisation [was] generally not crucial since comets are usually regarded as objects where you can find prebiotic molecules, that is, molecules that are precursors of life, but not living microorganisms", according to Gerhard Schwehm, Rosetta's project scientist.[55] The total cost of the mission is about €1.3 billion (US$1.8 billion).[56]


Trajectory of the Rosetta space probe

Rosetta was set to be launched on 12 January 2003 to rendezvous with the comet 46P/Wirtanen in 2011.[38] This plan was abandoned after the failure of an Ariane 5 carrier rocket during Hot Bird 7's launch on 11 December 2002, grounding it until the cause of the failure could be determined.[57] In May 2003, a new plan was formed to target the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, with a revised launch date of 26 February 2004 and comet rendezvous in 2014.[58][59] The larger mass and the resulting increased impact velocity made modification of the landing gear necessary.[60]

After two scrubbed launch attempts, Rosetta was launched on 2 March 2004 at 07:17 UTC from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana.[2] Aside from the changes made to launch time and target, the mission profile remained almost identical. Both co-discoverers of the comet, Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, were present at the spaceport during the launch.[61][62]

Deep space manoeuvres

To achieve the required velocity to rendezvous with 67P, Rosetta used gravity assist manoeuvres to accelerate throughout the inner Solar System.[63] The comet's orbit was known before Rosetta's launch, from ground-based measurements, to an accuracy of approximately 100 km (62 mi). Information gathered by the onboard cameras beginning at a distance of 24 million kilometres (15,000,000 mi) were processed at ESA's Operation Centre to refine the position of the comet in its orbit to a few kilometres.

The first Earth flyby was on 4 March 2005.[64]

On 25 February 2007, the craft was scheduled for a low-altitude flyby of Mars, to correct the trajectory. This was not without risk, as the estimated altitude of the flyby was a mere 250 kilometres (160 mi).[65] During that encounter, the solar panels could not be used since the craft was in the planet's shadow, where it would not receive any solar light for 15 minutes, causing a dangerous shortage of power. The craft was therefore put into standby mode, with no possibility to communicate, flying on batteries that were originally not designed for this task.[66] This Mars manoeuvre was therefore nicknamed "The Billion Euro Gamble".[67] The flyby was successful, with Rosetta even returning detailed images of the surface and atmosphere of the planet, and the mission continued as planned.[10][28]

The second Earth flyby was on 13 November 2007 at a distance of 5,700 km (3,500 mi).[68][69] In observations made on 7 and 8 November, Rosetta was briefly mistaken for a near-Earth asteroid about 20 m (66 ft) in diameter by an astronomer of the Catalina Sky Survey and was given the provisional designation 2007 VN84.[70] Calculations showed that it would pass very close to Earth, which led to speculation that it could impact Earth.[71] However, astronomer Denis Denisenko recognised that the trajectory matched that of Rosetta, which the Minor Planet Center confirmed in an editorial release on 9 November.[72][73]

The spacecraft performed a close flyby of asteroid 2867 Šteins on 5 September 2008. Its onboard cameras were used to fine-tune the trajectory, achieving a minimum separation of less than 800 km (500 mi). Onboard instruments measured the asteroid from 4 August to 10 September. Maximum relative speed between the two objects during the flyby was 8.6 km/s (19,000 mph; 31,000 km/h).[74]

Rosetta's signal received at ESOC in Darmstadt, Germany, on 20 January 2014

Rosetta's third and final flyby of Earth happened on 12 November 2009.[75]

On 10 July 2010, Rosetta flew by 21 Lutetia, a large main-belt asteroid, at a minimum distance of 3,168±7.5 km (1,969±4.7 mi) at a velocity of 15 kilometres per second (9.3 mi/s).[12] The flyby provided images of up to 60 metres (200 ft) per pixel resolution and covered about 50% of the surface, mostly in the northern hemisphere.[30][76] The 462 images were obtained in 21 narrow- and broad-band filters extending from 0.24 to 1 μm.[30] Lutetia was also observed by the visible–near-infrared imaging spectrometer VIRTIS, and measurements of the magnetic field and plasma environment were taken as well.[30][76]

In May 2014, Rosetta began a series of eight burns. These reduced the relative velocity between the spacecraft and 67P from 775 m/s (2,540 ft/s) to 7.9 m/s (26 ft/s).[18]

Reaction control system problems

In 2006, Rosetta suffered a leak in its reaction control system (RCS).[63] The system, which consists of 24 bipropellant 10-newton thrusters,[18] was responsible for fine tuning the trajectory of Rosetta throughout its journey. The RCS operated at a lower pressure than designed due to the leak. While this may have caused the propellants to mix incompletely and burn 'dirtier' and less efficiently, ESA engineers were confident that the spacecraft would have sufficient fuel reserves to allow for the successful completion of the mission.[77]

Rosetta's reaction wheels also showed higher than expected vibration, though testing revealed the system could be operated more efficiently resulting in less wear on the wheels. Before hibernation, two of the spacecraft's four reaction wheels began exhibiting "noise". Engineers turned on three of the wheels after the spacecraft awoke, including one of the bad wheels. The other improperly functioning wheel was held in reserve. Additionally, new software was uploaded which would allow Rosetta to function with only two active reaction wheels if necessary.[63][78]

Orbit around 67P

In August 2014, Rosetta rendezvoused with the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P) and commenced a series of manoeuvres that took it on two successive triangular paths, averaging 100 and 50 kilometres (62 and 31 mi) from the nucleus, whose segments are hyperbolic escape trajectories alternating with thruster burns.[19][20] After closing to within about 30 km (19 mi) from the comet on 10 September, the spacecraft entered actual orbit about it.[19][20][21]

The surface layout of 67P was unknown before Rosetta's arrival. The orbiter mapped the comet in anticipation of detaching its lander.[79] By 25 August 2014, five potential landing sites had been determined.[80] On 15 September 2014, ESA announced Site J, named Agilkia in honour of Agilkia Island by an ESA public contest and located on the "head" of the comet,[81] as the lander's destination.[82]

Philae lander

Main article: Philae (spacecraft)
Rosetta and Philae

Philae detached from Rosetta on 12 November 2014 at 08:35 UTC, and approached 67P at a relative speed of about 1 m/s (3.6 km/h; 2.2 mph).[83] It initially landed on 67P at 15:33 UTC, but bounced twice, coming to rest at 17:33 UTC.[13][84] Confirmation of contact with 67P reached Earth at 16:03 UTC.[85]

On contact with the surface, two harpoons were to be fired into the comet to prevent the lander from bouncing off as the comet's escape velocity is only around 1 m/s (3.6 km/h; 2.2 mph).[86] Analysis of telemetry indicated that the surface at the initial touchdown site is relatively soft, covered with a layer of granular material about 0.82 feet (0.25 meters) deep,[87] and that the harpoons had not fired upon landing. After landing on the comet, Philae had been scheduled to commence its science mission, which included:

Philae landed oddly, in the shadow of a nearby cliff[89] and canted at an angle of around 30 degrees. This made it unable to adequately collect solar power, and it lost contact with Rosetta when its batteries ran out after two days, well before much of the planned science objectives could be attempted.[14] Contact was briefly and intermittently reestablished several months later at various times between 13 June and 9 July, before contact was lost once again. There was no communication afterwards,[90] and the transmitter to communicate with Philae was switched off in July 2016 to reduce power consumption of the probe.[91] The precise location of the lander was discovered in September 2016 when Rosetta came closer to the comet and took high-resolution pictures of its surface.[89] Knowing its exact location provides information needed to put Philae's two days of science into proper context.[89]

Notable results

Researchers expect the study of data gathered will continue for decades to come. One of the first discoveries was that the magnetic field of 67P oscillated at 40–50 millihertz. Scientists modified the signal by speeding it up 10,000 times so that people could hear a rendition of it. Although it is a natural phenomenon, it has been described as a "song"[92] and has been compared to Continuum for harpsichord by György Ligeti.[93] However, results from Philae's landing show that the comet's nucleus has no magnetic field, and that the field originally detected by Rosetta is likely caused by the solar wind.[94][95]

The isotopic signature of water vapour from comet 67P, as determined by the Rosetta spacecraft, is substantially different from that found on Earth. That is, the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in the water from the comet was determined to be three times that found for terrestrial water. This makes it very unlikely that water found on Earth came from comets such as comet 67P, according to the scientists.[96][97][98] On 22 January 2015, NASA reported that, between June and August 2014, the rate at which water vapor was released by the comet increased up to tenfold.[99]

On 2 June 2015, NASA reported that the ALICE spectrograph on Rosetta determined that electrons within 1 km (0.6 mi) above the comet nucleus — produced from photoionization of water molecules by solar radiation, and not photons from the Sun as thought earlier — are responsible for the degradation of water and carbon dioxide molecules released from the comet nucleus into its coma.[100][101]

End of mission

As the orbit of comet 67P took it farther from the Sun, the amount of sunlight reaching Rosetta's solar panels decreased. While it would have been possible to put Rosetta into a second hibernation phase during the comet's aphelion, there was no assurance that enough power would be available to run the spacecraft's heaters to keep it from freezing. In order to guarantee a maximum science return, mission managers made the decision to instead guide Rosetta down to the comet's surface and end the mission on impact, gathering photographs and instrument readings along the way.[102] On 23 June 2015, at the same time as a mission extension was confirmed, ESA announced that end of mission would occur at the end of September 2016 after two years of operations at the comet.[103]

Rosetta began a 19 km (12 mi) descent with a 208-second thruster burn executed on 29 September 2016 at approximately 20:50 UTC.[104][105][106] Its trajectory targeted a site in the Ma'at region near an area of dust- and gas-producing active pits.[107]

Impact on the comet's surface occurred 14.5 hours after its descent manoeuvre; the final data packet from Rosetta was transmitted at 10:39:28.895 UTC (SCET) by the OSIRIS instrument and was received at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, at 11:19:36.541 UTC.[104][105][108] The spacecraft's estimated speed at the time of impact was 3.2 km/h (2.0 mph; 89 cm/s),[17] and its touchdown location, named Sais by the operations team after the Rosetta Stone's original temple home, is believed to be only 40 m (130 ft) off-target.[107] The final image transmitted by the spacecraft of the comet was taken by its OSIRIS instrument at an altitude of 20 m (66 ft) about 10 seconds before impact, showing an area 0.96 m (3.1 ft) across.[107] Rosetta's computer included commands to send it into safe mode upon detecting that it had hit the comet's surface, turning off its radio transmitter and rendering it inert in accordance with International Telecommunication Union rules.[106]


For the instruments on Philae, see Philae (spacecraft) § Instruments.


The investigation of the nucleus is done by three optical spectrometers, one microwave radio antenna and one radar:

Gas and particles

Solar wind interaction

Search for organic compounds

Previous observations have shown that comets contain complex organic compounds.[63][122][123][124] These are the elements that make up nucleic acids and amino acids, essential ingredients for life as we know it. Comets are thought to have delivered a vast quantity of water to Earth, and they may have also seeded Earth with organic molecules.[125] Rosetta and Philae will also search for organic molecules, nucleic acids (the building blocks of DNA and RNA) and amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) by sampling and analysing the comet's nucleus and coma cloud of gas and dust,[125] helping assess the contribution comets made to the beginnings of life on Earth.[63] Before succumbing to falling power levels, Philae's COSAC instrument was able to detect organic molecules in the comet's atmosphere.[126]

Two enantiomers of a generic amino acid. The mission will study why one chirality of some amino acids seems to be dominant in the universe.
Amino acids

Upon landing on the comet, Philae should have also tested some hypotheses as to why essential amino acids are almost all "left-handed", which refers to how the atoms arrange in orientation in relation to the carbon core of the molecule.[127] Most asymmetrical molecules are oriented in approximately equal numbers of left- and right-handed configurations (chirality), and the primarily left-handed structure of essential amino acids used by living organisms is unique. One hypothesis that will be tested was proposed in 1983 by William A. Bonner and Edward Rubenstein, Stanford University professors emeritus of chemistry and medicine respectively. They conjectured that when spiralling radiation is generated from a supernova, the circular polarisation of that radiation could then destroy one type of "handed" molecules. The supernova could wipe out one type of molecules while also flinging the other surviving molecules into space, where they could eventually end up on a planet.[128]

Preliminary results

The mission has yielded a significant science return, collecting a wealth of data from the nucleus and its environment at various levels of cometary activity.[129] The VIRTIS spectrometer on board the Rosetta spacecraft has provided evidence of nonvolatile organic macromolecular compounds everywhere on the surface of comet 67P with little to no water ice visible.[130] Preliminary analyses strongly suggest the carbon is present as polyaromatic organic solids mixed with sulfides and iron-nickel alloys.[131][132]

Solid organic compounds were also found in the dust particles emitted by the comet; the carbon in this organic material is bound in "very large macromolecular compounds", analogous to those found in carbonaceous chondrite meteorites.[133] However, no hydrated minerals were detected, suggesting no link with carbonaceous chondrites.[134]

In turn, the Philae lander's COSAC instrument detected organic molecules in the comet's atmosphere as it descended to its surface.[135][136] Measurements by the COSAC and Ptolemy instruments on the Philae's lander revealed sixteen organic compounds, four of which were seen for the first time on a comet, including acetamide, acetone, methyl isocyanate and propionaldehyde.[137][138][139] The only amino acid detected thus far on the comet is glycine,[140] along with the precursor molecules methylamine and ethylamine.[141]

One of the most outstanding discoveries of the mission was the detection of large amounts of free molecular oxygen (O
) gas surrounding the comet.[142][143]

Timeline of major events and discoveries

Hubble view of P/2010 A2
Comet 67P seen from 10 km (6 mi)

Media coverage

The entire mission was featured heavily in social media, with a Facebook account for the mission and both the satellite and the lander having an official Twitter account portraying a personification of both spacecraft. The hashtag "#CometLanding" gained widespread traction. A Livestream of the control centres was set up, as were multiple official and unofficial events around the world to follow Philae's landing on 67P.[169][170] On 23 September 2016, Vangelis released the studio album Rosetta in honour of the mission,[171][172] which was used on 30 September in the "Rosetta's final hour" streaming video of the ESA Livestream event "Rosetta Grand Finale".[173]

See also


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