A Spacecraft Has Woken From A Deep Sleep And Is Preparing To Harpoon A Comet


After 31 months hibernating in deep space, the European Space Agency’s comet-chasing probe Rosetta has powered up and is sending signals more than 800 million kilometres to satellite dishes in New Norcia, Western Australia, and Tidbinbilla, Canberra.

Rosetta’s first wakening signals, taking about 45 minutes to reach Earth, arrived today.

Australia is playing a critical role in all communication phases of the Rosetta mission including the final landing on the comet in November 2014.

In its ten-year mission, Rosetta has travelled so far from the Sun to synchronise with the trajectory of the comet that there wasn’t enough solar light to keep the spacecraft powered up.

So the probe went into deep sleep to conserve fuel.

Early today Sydney time, four automatic countdown timers on-board the Rosetta spacecraft sent a wake up call.

This involves a complex series of automatic on-board commands to warm up the spacecraft, stop it spinning, point its solar panels to the sun, precisely calculate its orientation and then rotate its high-gain parabolic antenna to start transmitting signals to Earth.

Just like The Dish movie where Australia’s Parkes Radio-Telescope was used to receive the video image of Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon, the 35-metre ESA dish in New Norcia and the 70-metre NASA Tidbinbilla are being used as the first ground stations for re-establishing communications with Rosetta.

In November, Rosetta’s landing craft will land on the comet, an icy lump named 67P/Churyumnov-Gerasimenko, take photographs and start drilling.

The probe will be the first spacecraft to orbit a comet’s nucleus and the first to touchdown. It will also observe the comet as it heats up nearer the sun.

Comets, a mixture of ice and dust, are said to be remnants from the formation of the solar system.


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