After 10 years and 8 months of travel, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta space probe will release its Philae lander down to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko where it will begin detailing the comet’s composition. This highly anticipated maneuver will mark the first time a probe has soft-landed on the surface of a comet.
While Rosetta was launched in March 2004, early consideration for the mission began as early as the 1970s, with final approval from the ESA’s Science Programme Committee being received in November 1993. During these early stages in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rosetta, then named the Comet Nucleus Sample Return (CNSR), began as part of a two-probe program with NASA which sought to not only rendezvous with a comet, but return samples back to Earth.
NASA’s contribution to this program was the Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby. The first of NASA’s Mariner Mark II series of spacecrafts, CRAF was a canceled space probe intended to accomplish goals similar to the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft. Not all unlike Rosetta’s lander Philae, CRAF’s lander was to measure the chemical composition and temperature of the comet’s nucleus, while other instruments would collect data on the comet’s coma and trail as it passed around the Sun.
Due to budget restrictions, CRAF was canceled in 1992 and the remaining funds allocated to the defunct spacecraft were redirected to its twin, and second member of the Mariner Mark II series, the Cassini-Huygens probe. As a result, Cassini-Huygens not only survived Congressional cutbacks, but was launched in October 1997. [Read more: How Much Does It Cost To Land On A Comet]
Following CRAF’s cancellation, the ESA’s CNSR spacecraft underwent a redesign that resulted in it better resembling its canceled counterpart. This included abandoning the ambitious sample return portion of its original mission, as it was not congruent with the existing ESA budget.
If it hadn’t been canceled, CRAF’s lander would have been released from the probe in August 2001 en route to the surface of Comet Kopff, a maneuver which Philae will mirror Wednesday.
As is exemplified with CRAF’s cancellation, the need for your continued support is vital to the survival of NASA’s many current and future projects. In order to continue innovative work of this nature, let Congress know that you support doubling funding for NASA: http://www.penny4nasa.org/take-action/