By Michael Pearson
Like a groggy traveler after a long, cold night, the European Space Agency's comet-chasing Rosetta spacecraft woke up, warmed up and took stock of its surroundings early Monday as it prepared to phone home before setting off on the final leg of its journey.
At least, that's the hope of ESA controllers, who won't know exactly what happened in the dark reaches of our solar system until the spacecraft manages to shake off its 31 months of sleep, turn its antennas toward Earth and send a brief message that will take 45 minutes to arrive. The message isn't expected to arrive at the ESA's Darmstadt, Germany, operations center until at least 6:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m. ET).
That's about 5½ after the spacecraft's internal alarm was set to go off.
The spacecraft, launched in 2004, is some 497,000 miles (800,000 kilometers) from Earth, ESA says.
If all goes well, it will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August and send a small lander to the surface in November as it follows the comet around the sun for two years. The mission will give scientists unprecedented insight into the makeup and structure of these ancient residents of the solar system, ESA officials say.
"This is groundbreaking science," Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor told ESA television. "We're looking at where we came from, the evolution of our own solar system. And comets are looked upon as kind of a time capsule back to the beginning of the solar system."
Scientists believe comets, composed of rock and ice, may have brought water and maybe even the primitive building blocks of life to Earth.
Rosetta carries 11 scientific instruments; its lander has 10 more.
ESA controllers ordered Rosetta to shut down most of its systems in June 2011 to save on power as it sailed through the darkest reaches of the solar system. The amount of sunlight reaching the solar-powered probe is only 4% that on Earth, according to ESA.
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