The European Space Agency has cancelled the launch of their comet-chasing Rosetta Mission, but comet exploration goes on.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has announced the cancellation of their Rosetta
mission launch. The mission was scheduled for launch at the end of January 2003, but due to persisting problems with the Ariane 5 rocket, the project has been postponed. The mission, named for the famous Rosetta stone
, was originally intended to rendezvous with Comet Wirtanen in 2011. Because of its orbit, the Comet won't be accessible again for another 170 years. Cancellation of this launch will place Rosetta
into storage until another comet can be found. The mission may need to be redesigned
in order to correctly target a new comet.
Why Rosetta? Says ESA, "Just as the Rosetta Stone provided the key to an ancient civilization, so ESA's Rosetta spacecraft will unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our Solar System - the comets."
Highly anticipated by the Astrobiology community, the Rosetta mission promised scientists a look into the past to the time of early Solar System formation. "
an epoch," says ESA, "when no planets existed and only a vast swarm of asteroids and comets surrounded the Sun." The mission involved an orbiter and a lander, which will probably still be the first craft ever to land on a comet.
Mission cancellation and postponements are a harsh reality for all prospective launches, both for NASA and ESA. The Ariane 5 rocket has long been known to be a gamble. The Arianespace launch consortium of Evry, France, decided recently that its confidence in the Ariane 5 rocket was insufficient to undertake the Rosetta launch within the mission's window. An enhanced version of that rocket failed in December.
The cost of this cancellation and storage of Rosetta hardware is estimated to be between $50-$100 million dollars.
As the Rosetta mission is re-examined, other missions are hard at work collecting data on the composition and roles of comets. NASA's Stardust mission was launched in 1999 and is expected to make contact with the Comet Wild 2 in 2004 before returning to the Earth in 2006. Samples of gas and dust from the comet interior will be collected on one side of Stardust's aerogel plates. On the reverse sides, Stardust has already gathered interstellar dust particle samples.
Another NASA mission, Deep Impact, is scheduled to make contact with Comet Tempel 1 on July 4th 2005. The Deep Impact mission will launch in January 2004 with the intent to excavate a crater more than 25m deep and 100m in diameter on its target. This procedure will help scientists observe how the crater forms, measure its composition and ejecta, and determine the changes in natural outgassing produced by the impact.
While the delay of the Rosetta mission launch is a disappointment to many, there are still numerous projects busily collecting data and contributing to our overall knowledge of Solar System Formation and Life in the Universe. Given some time and attention, Rosetta will be back in the headlines.