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Europe to launch comet chaser

The Rosetta satellite will rendezvous with the comet while taking scientific measurements.
The Rosetta satellite will rendezvous with the comet while taking scientific measurements.

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European Space Agency
Rosetta spacecraft

LONDON, England (Reuters) -- Europe is expected to launch on Thursday the first space mission to attempt to land on the nucleus of a comet, scientists said.

The Rosetta spacecraft and lander will blast off from the Kourou launch site in French Guiana.

Rosetta, whose original launch date a year ago was canceled after an explosion on takeoff, will study the comet as it hurtles toward the sun.

"It is hoped the Rosetta mission will provide us with an understanding of the origins of the sun and the planets, including Earth," said Lord Sainsbury, Britain's science minister.

"It could provide answers to the question of how life actually began," he told reporters at a European Space Agency news conference in London.

The United States led the comet-chasing race with its Stardust spacecraft that gathered particles from a comet's tail and took pictures of its nucleus, but Rosetta's lander would be the first to touch the nucleus itself.

During its 12-year expedition, Rosetta, named after the inscribed slab of stone used to decipher ancient hieroglyphics, will take images of the comet and samples of its surface.

It will take 10 years to reach its target.

No existing rocket is powerful enough to send the spacecraft directly to its destination, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Rosetta will swing around Mars and the Earth several times, picking up momentum like a slingshot before breaking free and hurtling off.

In 2014, the spacecraft will enter the comet's orbit, brake and eventually drop a lander on to its nucleus.

Nothing is known about the surface of the nucleus, which has a diameter roughly the length of London's Heathrow airport.

"The lander was designed to deal with different surfaces -- at one extreme, a surface-like concrete, at the other, like candy floss," said Dr. Ian Wright of the Open University, one of the scientists overseeing the mission.

Wright said it was possible that water on earth, essential to the beginning of life, was originally brought by comets -- a connection Rosetta could shed light on.

It could also help investigations into the threat rogue asteroids pose to Earth.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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