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Europe gears up for comet chaser

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Europe is stepping up its preparations for the launch of a space craft designed to chase and land on a comet.

The Rosetta mission was scrubbed at the last minute in January because of problems with the Ariane rocket system that would have launched it from Earth.

user posted image

The orbiter will drop a lander on a comet

It will now lift off in February 2004, after a delay of more than a year.

Project engineers are about to enter the final launch campaign after a summer spent modifying the space probe.

Scientists have had to choose a new target comet - a ball of ice and rock known as Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The new destination has posed some engineering challenges for the European Space Agency (Esa), not least because the comet is three times larger than Wirtanen, its original quarry.

When Rosetta reaches the comet, it will drop a 100-kilogram lander, the size of a washing machine, which will descend at walking speed and harpoon itself to the comet's surface.

Engineers were concerned that the lander, designed to touch down on a much smaller body, could travel too fast and topple over because of the comet's stronger gravitational pull.

To overcome this, they have fitted a mechanical device to stop it tilting, in addition to the lander's existing three legs which will unfold and absorb the energy of the impact.

"We've had to look at all the mission elements and make sure this new mission can be satisfied by the space craft that was ready to be launched in January 2003," said John Ellwood, project manager at Esa.

"I think we're very confident we've looked at all the mission aspects - Ariane is in good shape and I think the space craft is ready to go."

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