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In 2004, Europe’s Rosetta probe departed Earth on the start of a 10-year journey to comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which it began observing close up in July 2014. Then in November 2014 Rosetta released the Philae lander onto the comet’s surface to analyse it from all angles, studying the composition of its soil, its physical properties and level of activity.
This science phase is planned to last at least 18 months in an effort to gain new insights into the formation of the solar system. As comets were formed at the same time as our solar system 4½ billion years ago, well before the planets, they offer a glimpse of what conditions were like when it was born.
The orbiter and its lander
To accomplish this mission, the orbiter and its lander are carrying no fewer than 21 instruments (11 on the orbiter, 10 on the lander). The Rosetta mission is part of the European Space Agency’s Horizon 2000 programme. France and CNES are contributing to this mission in several areas. For the orbiter, CNES is overseeing the CONSERT instrument (Comet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radiowave Transmission), a radar designed by the IPAG planetology and astrophysics institute in Grenoble, the LATMOS atmospheres, environments and space observations laboratory and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany to study the inner structure of the comet’s nucleus. Airbus Defence & Space Germany (formerly EADS Astrium) is the prime contractor for the orbiter. For the lander, CNES supplied the primary and secondary batteries.
The agency is also responsible for the mission’s Science Operations and Navigation Centre (SONC) and oversaw development of the CIVA camera (Comet Infrared & Visible Analyser) by the IAS space astrophysics institute in Orsay and the LAM astrophysics laboratory in Marseille.