Rosetta, Are We There Yet?!

After ten years of engineering, planning, and waiting, the Rosetta spacecraft is about to rendezvous with its comet. Weeks later, it'll send little lander Philea to screw into the rubber ducky of doom. I'm not even going to pretend I'm sleeping until Rosetta is in orbit.

Top image: ESA communications antenna that will be used to track the Rosetta spacecraft. Image credit: ESA

It's been literally a full decade leading up to this moment, including a full-on scramble to find a new launch system or target when the original rocket scheduled to boost Rosetta out of Earth's gravity well unceremoniously exploded during an earlier launch. Now we're in the final countdown, with the live feed starting at 8:00 GMT so all of us who aren't involved in making things happen can follow along at home.

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Tonight is the orbital insertion: at 9:00 GMT, the spacecraft will make a 6 minute, 26 second burn. There's no reason to think it won't be entirely successful, setting Rosetta in position for two more burns. This is a painfully slow process — with each burn taking place at the end of a hundred-kilometer leg, it's going to be days between each one.

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Rosetta's navigators are just as helpless as we are once the spacecraft enters the final stage of its approach. Image credit: ESA

After Rosetta is in orbit around Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and is done remote investigation, little lander Philae will be sent down to investigate in November. When that happens, we'll be in the true moments-of-terror where so many things could go wrong, and we won't be able to do a thing about it. Travel-time for communication is so long that the last steps all need to be performed automatically, so even the scientists whose project this is are going to be stuck waiting with no way to help.

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About the only thing to do tonight is impatiently click around the internet, come up with inane entries for the Rosetta, Are We There Yet? photo competition harnessing our collective nervous energy, and stare at the Deep Space Network live feed, where Rosetta is currently chatting with Goldstone antenna 15. I've clicked so much I have a bank of tabs awaiting updates, I'm too wired to be clever enough to create an entry, and soon Rosetta will be handed off to an ESA communications antenna that doesn't offer a live feed, so even those meagre distractions will be fading fast.

Little lander Philae is just as impatient as we are!

I can't believe in just a few hours, a spacecraft will swing into position around a comet. But what's really getting me, and why I better stock up on sleep while I can, is that in just a few more months, a lander will attempt to land, drill in its ice screw-legs, and latch on to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. By morning, ESA's comet-chaser will have chased down its comet. But on a morning in the not-so-distant future, we'll either be in a new era of successfully snaring a cosmic iceberg, or mourning the loss of a daring spacecraft.

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...I'll just be over here, twiddling scraps of paper and constantly hitting refresh.

Update: Yes, yes we are!