So far, men have walked on the Moon, robots have roamed on Mars, but neither man, nor machine has had a close encounter with a cosmic iceberg.
In a celestial first, about a week ago, Rosetta, the European Space Agency’s orbiter, made a rendezvous with comet 67P, somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. After a decade-long hot pursuit that took it on a four-billion-mile chase through interplanetary space, it reached its quarry on August 6.
Now that Rosetta has achieved this feat, it’ll attempt to win another laurel, by attempting to drop its sidecar Philae, on the ice ball, later this November.
Just as the Rosetta Stone provided the key to an ancient civilization, so ESA’s Rosetta mission will unlock the mysteries of comets, the oldest building blocks of our solar system.
After its mission officially ends in about 10 years, and it begins its “eternal odyssey around the Sun,” it’ll serve as a “dormant robotic ambassador” from Earth.
Nestled in folds of thermal blankets, is a thin nickel disk—the modern equivalent of the Rosetta Stone—etched with text in 1,000 different languages, in a very, very tiny font. It needs only a microscope to be read. Such simplicity is a guard against the threat of evolving technologies of the future, which may render it unreadable.