Washington: Three NASA science instruments aboard the European Space Agency`s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft, which is set to become the first to orbit a comet and land a probe on its nucleus, are beginning observations and sending science data back to Earth.
Launched in March 2004, Rosetta was reactivated January 2014 after a record 957 days in hibernation. Composed of an orbiter and lander, Rosetta`s objective is to arrive at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August to study the celestial object up close in unprecedented detail and prepare for landing a probe on the comet`s nucleus in November.
Claudia Alexander, Rosetta`s U.S. project scientist at NASA`s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said they are happy to be seeing some real zeroes and ones coming down from our instruments, and cannot wait to figure out what they are telling them.
Rosetta currently is approaching the main asteroid belt located between Jupiter and Mars. The spacecraft is still about 300,000 miles (500,000 kilometers) from the comet, but in August the instruments will begin to map its surface.
The three U.S. instruments aboard the spacecraft are the Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter (MIRO), an ultraviolet spectrometer called Alice, and the Ion and Electron Sensor (IES). They are part of a suite of 11 science instruments aboard the Rosetta orbiter.
MIRO is designed to provide data on how gas and dust leave the surface of the nucleus to form the coma and tail that gives comets their intrinsic beauty. Studying the surface temperature and evolution of the coma and tail provides information on how the comet evolves as it approaches and leaves the vicinity of the sun.
Alice will analyze gases in the comet`s coma, which is the bright envelope of gas around the nucleus of the comet developed as a comet approaches the sun. Alice also will measure the rate at which the comet produces water, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. The instrument also will measure the amount of argon present, an important clue about the temperature of the solar system at the time the comet`s nucleus originally formed more than 4.6 billion years ago.
IES is part of a suite of five instruments to analyze the plasma environment of the comet, particularly the coma. The instrument will measure the charged particles in the sun`s outer atmosphere, or solar wind, as they interact with the gas flowing out from the comet while Rosetta is drawing nearer to the comet`s nucleus.