I've been following the Rosetta mission for almost two decades....back in the mid 90s when it was known by the clumsy name Comet Nucleus Sample Return mission and updates didn't come from the internet but via Astronomy Now or The Sky at Night. Now it's on the final leg of a very, very long journey.
Not many people outside the astronomy community ("norms", I believe they're called) have heard of Rosetta. It was launched into space by the European Space Agency 10 years ago with the eventual goal of orbiting a comet and deploying a lander to its surface. I remember when it was launched: nearing the end of my PhD and wondering* what life would be like in 2014.
The Rosetta spacecraft is now just weeks away from its destination and the comet (named 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko) is in sight.
Last week the ESA released some pixelated images of comet as seen from 37,000 km away. The pictures appeared to show a lobed nucleus measuring 3x4x5 km and spinning on an axis once every 12.4 hours.
Pictures taken a few days later resolve the shape more clearly. It's a giant rubber duck.
Well obviously not a rubber duck. The pictures show the comet is a contact binary. Two distinct lumps in physical contact. Perhaps the result of a gentle collision between two previously distinct comets, or the coming together of two fragments of an originally larger comet. Either way, this is going to present new challenges to the mission controllers over the next couple of weeks as they refine their plans about where to locate the landing site on the comet.
* Still no jet-packs.
Dr Adrian Jannetta
Guitar strummin' explorer of the universe. Mild mannered maths teacher by day and astronomer by night.