(By Sandra Cordon) (ANSA) - Rome, August 6 - After a 10-year journey across the solar system, the Rosetta spacecraft has become the first ever to orbit a comet, the European Space Agency said Wednesday. The Rosetta finally caught up with the odd-shaped comet, officially known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and later this year is expected to launch a small landing device on to its irregular, moon-like surface. Close-up images of the surface also wowed the scientific crowd in the ESA control centre in Darmstadt, Germany where experts described the sights as "extraordinary", "amazing" and "almost unexpected". Reaching the comet, often called simply C-G, is a milestone for European space exploration and for Italy, which has invested heavily in the 1.3-billion-euro project through the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and through industry support. "This is an exciting and unique mission," said Roberto Battiston, president of the ASI, who was at the project's control centre. "It (is) a particularly important moment in the history of the exploration of the universe, we expect a lot of information on the formation of our solar system," from the Rosetta's voyage, said Battiston. "It is also proof of what Italy can do when making a long-term plan," he added. When the Rosetta craft reached the comet, "it was really exciting, people all rose to their feet and applauded," he said. One objective of the mission is to collect a series of images of the comet, which has been described as looking a bit like a rubber duck, with an irregular surface about three kilometers wide and marked by craters and steep slopes. Named for the Rosetta Stone, an ancient engraved block that provided the modern key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Rosetta space craft is designed to provide similar insights for scientists into the origins of our solar system, created more than 4.6 billion years ago. They hope that by studying the images and samples that the craft will collect, they can better understand the materials that make up the Earth and other planets in our solar system. Images taken using an Italian-made system called the Rosetta Osiris (Rosetta Orbiter Imaging System) from various distances have shown in increasing detail the rough surface of the comet and its two oddly shaped ends. The Rosetta craft has been recording various types of observations for weeks as it tracks the C-G comet, which is made up of rock, ice and dust. In one test in June, it measured the rate of water vapour leaving the planet at a rate of about two cups per second. Meanwhile, as the Rosetta craft and comet race towards the sun together in the coming months, the comet will gradually change form, from a predominantly ice form to something hotter and rockier, with a growing tail of dust and gas following behind. Attached to the Rosetta craft is a small landing device named Philae after the island in the Nile where the Rosetta Stone was discovered. Later this year, likely in November, the plan is to detach the Philae from the Rosetta craft and place the landing device on the comet, where it will harpoon itself and then take samples from the surface to help scientists better understand what comprises a comet besides ice and rock. Scientists say this will mark the first time a craft has landed on a comet and are considering as many as five different possible landing sites on the C-G comet. Italy has an active space program that captured headlines last year when Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano completed a five-and-a-half-month stint on the International Space Station in which he became the first Italian to walk in space and the youngest astronaut in history to perform a long-term mission. The second of his two space walks was interrupted when water leaked through his suit and into the helmet, soaking his eyes, nose and mouth, but Parmitano's calm response to the situation enabled him to get back to safety on the ISS.
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