After Hibernation, Rosetta Seeks Its Stone

The Rosetta spacecraft has awakened. It was put in hibernation for 31 months while its orbit took it nearly half a billion miles from the sun, too far for its solar arrays to keep the spacecraft operational. But now it's close enough, and European Space Agency mission managers will start preparing for Rosetta's rendezvous with a comet later this year.

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The European Space Agency's Rosetta mission is back in business. For the past 31 months, the spacecraft has effectively been asleep. Most of its instruments were shut off to save energy, including the radio for communicating with Earth. Mission managers can now start preparing Rosetta for a rendezvous with a comet later this year. NPR's Joe Palca has more.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Rosetta went into hibernation in June 2011. There was an automated timer on board that had specific instructions to wake the spacecraft up two and a half years later, and send a radio signal back to Earth. There was no reason to think Rosetta wouldn't wake back up - it was operating just fine when it went to sleep. But still you can imagine the relief at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany when the signal came in.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING, APPLAUSE AT MISSION CONTROL)

PALCA: Paolo Ferri was one of the people cheering. He's head of mission operations for the European Space Agency.

PAOLO FERRI: Two and a half years were tough enough, but the last 45 minutes were very, very, very tough. I think I don't want to repeat that again.

PALCA: So why did Rosetta have to hibernate? Well, the spacecraft gets its power from solar rays that convert light from the sun into electrical energy. But in order to catch up with the comet it's chasing, Rosetta had to go out nearly half a million miles from the sun. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: It was nearly half a billion miles from the sun.] And Ferri says that far away, the sun isn't very bright.

FERRI: Although we have larger rays, we didn't have enough energy, electrical energy to keep all systems active.

PALCA: So they left on the automated timer, of course, but they also left on some heaters.

FERRI: Because you can imagine at those distances from the sun, we had to keep the unit from freezing. And so the little energy that remained on the solar rays, which was of the order of a few hundred watts, was used to operate the thermostatic heaters to keep the spacecraft as warm as possible.

PALCA: Rosetta's main scientific mission starts this August, when it catches up with the comet it's been chasing since 2004, a comet with a name that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue - or at least, not my tongue.

FERRI: Well, we pronounce it, Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

PALCA: Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

FERRI: Right.

PALCA: Anyway, if everything goes according to plan, once Rosetta catches Churyumov-Gerasimenko, it will fly alongside for two years as the comet swings around the sun. It will also release a probe that is intended to land gently on the comet's surface. But before any of that can happen, Ferri says, in May Rosetta will have to make some crucial maneuvers.

FERRI: At the moment, we are still flying very, very fast compared to the comet. We have to brake.

PALCA: So that means Rosetta will have to fire its rocket engine, and it needs to change course slightly. Right now, Rosetta is not pointed in exactly the right direction, and that means a second rocket firing.

FERRI: If something goes wrong with those and we can't, for whatever reason, deform them, then we don't have a mission.

PALCA: Not that there's any reason to think the rocket engine won't work properly. It has in the past. But until it does, Ferri and his Rosetta colleagues will have to suffer through a few more tense moments.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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Correction Jan. 22, 2014

The audio of this story, as was the case in a previous Web introduction, incorrectly says that the spacecraft's orbit was half a million miles from the sun. It's actually half a billion miles.

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