Rosetta: What’s the big deal?

Instead of following the usual format today (find story, write lead, post an excerpt), I thought I’d do something a little different. The big story this week is about Philae, the little robot that ESA’s Rosetta probe just landed on Comet 67P.

The best place to find out the freshest news is the European Space Agency’s Rosetta site. But there’s a lot of detail on there, so I thought it might be more useful to take a step back and think about what really just happened.

First off, this mission started 10 years ago, in March 2004. John Kerry had just become the Democratic candidate for the American presidency. A year into the Iraq war, troops had just launched an attack on a place called Falluja, and nobody knew anything about photographs in Abu Ghraib. George W. Bush had, two months earlier, said in a speech it would be a good idea for Americans to return to the moon, and maybe even send a mission to Mars. Google was still a privately held company. Janet Jackson was still blushing over her “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl in January. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Finding Nemo had just won Oscars.

In March 2004, a talented 15-year-old singer-songwriter named Taylor Swift signed her very first publishing deal. The best-selling cell phone was a Nokia 2600. (It had a color screen! No camera, though.)

March 2004 was also when astronomers announced they’d found a Pluto-like mini-planet that they’d decided to name Sedna. Pluto was still a planet.

So that’s how long it’s taken to do this.

Why so long? Because Rosetta had to travel… a long way. Right now, it’s about 1,000,000,000 kilometers away. (That’s 621,371,192 miles… or 78,524 Earths.) But it didn’t go in a straight line – the craft has passed Earth three times since its launch, spiraling ever-further out into the solar system, using the pull of gravity from various planets and the Sun to help it on its way.

It’s a little more than the volume of a Mini Cooper (9.36 m3) – a box 2.8m x 2.1m x 2m (11.76m3) plus a communication antenna – with these big “wings” on the sides that go out for a 32 meter span (picture a semi hauling two trailers).Re

And it had to meet up with Comet 67P (full name: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, but I think we’re on a more familiar basis now), a piece of rock shaped something like a dog’s chew toy (they keep calling it a rubber duck, but I see a toy bone) with a big nub that’s 4.1×3.2×1.3 km (13.7km3) and a small nub that’s 2.5×2.5×2 km (9.8km3). Let’s call that 25km3, or 6 cubic miles, total.

How big is that? It’s as much stuff as was blasted out of Krakatoa when it erupted. It’s the size of a large avalanche in the Cascades or the Canary Islands. [CALCULATION ERROR, thanks Pete Cerny]It’s about two-thirds the size of the Capitol Rotunda, or about the volume of the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool.

It’s four-and-a-half Goodyear Blimps.

We sent something about as big as a compact car (with solar cells as long as a big semi) to hit a target the size of four-and-a-half Goodyear Blimps. … about one fourth the size of Sydney Harbour…that was 78,524 Earths away.

Oh, and moving at 84,000 miles per hour.

I don’t think I could throw a softball into five blimps OR Sydney Harbour at less than 1 Earth-diameter away if they were moving at 84,000 miles per hour.

So that’s that big deal. Part of it, anyway.

Here’s some visual aids using Central Park, downtown San Francisco and, uh, Star Trek stuff for comparison. And some European cities, too.

[via asking a simple question]