The European Space Agency’s Rosetta orbiter has been exploring Mars and several comets for the better part of 10 years. After being in hibernation for approximately 2.5 years, Rosetta is preparing to become the first spacecraft to orbit a comet’s nucleus and to land a probe called Philae on the surface of a comet.
Scheduled to encounter comet 67p/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in May 2014, the ESA will use Philae to study 67p’s dust and gas composition. Many planetary scientists believe that comets constitute the “primitive building blocks of the solar system.” Acting like seeds, comets are widely believed to spread many of the basic elements necessary for life such as amino acids and water within and between solar systems and galaxies.
The lander weighs 220-lb and is equipped with an onboard laboratory that will study samples collected after drilling 8 inches (20 centimeters) into the comet’s surface.