The Rosetta mission will achieve many historic firsts.
◾Rosetta will be the first spacecraft to orbit a comet’s nucleus.
◾It will be the first spacecraft to fly alongside a comet as it heads towards the inner Solar System.
◾Rosetta will be the first spacecraft to examine from close proximity how a frozen comet is transformed by the warmth of the Sun.
◾Shortly after its arrival at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the Rosetta orbiter will despatch a robotic lander for the first controlled touchdown on a comet nucleus.
◾The Rosetta lander’s instruments will obtain the first images from a comet’s surface and make the first in situ analysis to find out what it is made of.
◾On its way to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta will pass through the main asteroid belt, with the option to be the first European close encounter with one or more of these primitive objects.
◾Rosetta will be the first spacecraft ever to fly close to Jupiter’s orbit using solar cells as its main power source.
Scientists will be eagerly waiting to compare Rosetta’s results with previous studies by ESA’s Giotto spacecraft and by ground-based observatories. These have shown that comets contain complex organic molecules - compounds that are rich in carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen.
Intriguingly, these are the elements which make up nucleic acids and amino acids, the essential ingredients for life as we know it. Did life on Earth begin with the help of comet seeding? Rosetta may help us to find the answer to this fundamental question.