By Joe Arrigo

To ride on a comet into our solar system and around the sun. That’s what the Rosetta Mission spacecraft will be doing this year—a milestone unprecedented feat. The comet is named 67P/Churyurnov-Gerasimenko, and the mission of Rosetta is to land a probe on its surface, to study it and its environment for about two-years.
Rosetta StoneTaking the name from the iconic ancient Egyptian Rosetta Stone discovered in the town of Rosetta by a French soldier in 1799, carved into volcanic rock in 196 B.C, symbolizes the expansion of knowledge as when the stone’s hieroglyphics was finally deciphered in 1822, giving linguists the key to a new language. Likewise, scientists look to deciphering the mysteries of how the solar system evolved, and if comets were instrumental in delivering water and perhaps even life to Earth.
Comets are the most primitive objects in the solar system representing it as it was in the beginning—fossils from when the solar system was formed about four-and-a-half billion years ago. Comets are dirty ice balls containing pristine material from the solar system that’s been sitting in a deep freeze in space; and now Rosetta will allow scientists to study one close-up. Launched by the European Space Agency in 2004, the spacecraft will rendezvous with 67P/Churyurnov-Gerasimenko in May 2014 and land on it in November, culminating its ten-year journey of almost 3 billion miles and four orbits around the sun.
Below is a diagram of the positions of the Erath in relation to 67P/Churyurnov-Gerasimenko at the time of launch.

Rosetta Diagram

As comets enter the solar system, they begin to change after they pass Jupiter; they start absorbing heat from the sun, more and more gases are released exploding them to life, and their tails become elongated to millions of miles in length—Rosetta and its probe will be along for the ride, and scientists will be vicariously experiencing it.

What will it do?

sci-philaeThe scientific feat of the Rosetta spacecraft traveling at 20,000 miles an hour rendezvousing with a comet only three-miles wide traveling at 34,000 an hour, is nothing short of stupendous. Once Rosetta rendezvouses with the comet, it will fly along side of it, then it will release the 220 pound probe, Philae lander, to the comet’s surface. As it touches down, two harpoons will attach to the surface, and the lander’s feet will then drill into the ground securing the probe because the comet’s gravity is too weak to hold it on its surface.

A drill will mine into a section of the comet’s core and placed into one of Philae’s ovens turning it into gas that is analyzed and the data beamed to Rosetta and then back to Earth.
One of these experiments will be to analyze the water on the comet for things called isotopes, which are actually different forms of the same element. Each element like water can have different isotopes where they will have same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons.

A good example is Carbon 12 and Carbon 14, both isotopes of carbon—one with 6 neutron and the other with 8 neutrons. The probe’s tiny lab will determine what the isotopic composition of water is on the comet, then scientists will compare that with the isotopic composition of water on Earth. If a relationship can be established between the two, it will strongly suggest comets did in fact deliver water to the early Earth.

Are we Extraterrestrials?

Scientists have found that comets have amino acidswhen the Stardust Mission in 1999 collected dust samples from the comet Wild 2 and returned them back to Earth. Professor of Planetary Sciences and Cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, Dante Lauretta expresses the discovery this way,

That’s incredibly exciting news because amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and proteins are essential for all life on Earth.

He adds,

We have learned from the studies of single comets and the Stardust Mission that they are complex chemical laboratories where the ingredients of life could form. These materials likely did not arrive naturally on the surface of the Earth from processes on our planet, instead it had to be delivered by the messenger of the outer solar system.

Since scientists still don’t fully understand origin of life. the questions remain, where did the building blocks come from, the water, the molecules that make up the very existence of life. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku mirrors this when he asks,

Where did the ingredients of life come from? Where are they all moved together? Where did all the liquid water come from? Comets could hold the key to understanding the nature of life itself.

He further adds,

Comets in some sense are the ultimate engineers of the solar system. Cometary impacts could give us the chemicals which give us the atmosphere, not only of Titan [moon of Jupiter] but perhaps the Earth.

The Rosetta Mission will no doubt shed more light on these profoundly perplexing questions. As one scientist observes, we don’t have proof yet that we came from comets—if we could find a correlation between amino acids on comets and amino acids we have on Earth, that could be one of the most significant findings in science.

Source: Joe Arrigo