Asteroid Mission Modeled with LEGOs

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Whenever chronic nerd-gassers gather to rip into the science of the blockbuster film, Armageddon, the conversation inevitably turns to the topic of how Bruce Willis and his fellow reluctant astronauts couldn't possibly have landed on that killer asteroid making a beeline for Earth — at least not as depicted in the film.

It's not a simple matter to land on a small-ish object hurtling through space at very high speed.

But the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft is going to have to pull off a similar feat to land on its target comet, affectionately known as Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Given the complexity of the task, a few years ago, ESA space scientist Detlef Koschny created a little model of the Rosetta spacecraft out of LEGOs to help everyone visualize the planned flight path during meetings.

Never underestimate the appeal of LEGOs: word spread about the model, and soon everyone wanted their own personal mini-Rosetta made of LEGOS.

And now everyone can have a mini-LEGO Rosetta, because the ESA just announced the release of a LEGO high-fidelity Rosetta Lander Education Kit, based on Koschny's original design — and there are even a few moving parts to help simulate the spacecraft's unique comet landing system that can be controlled by a simple home computer.

The kits were tested earlier this week by engineering and art students at the University of Rome — who learned a bit about comets, Rosetta and the ESA's mission in the process. I'll let Koschny explain the rationale behind the Rosetta mission:

"Chasing comets allows us to look back into the history of our Solar System. Comets and asteroids represent the leftovers from which the planets of our Solar System formed. Understanding their composition will teach us about how our own Earth came into being and the ingredients that allowed the formation of life."

Even though Rosetta launched in 2004, it's a long journey into deep space to intersect the comet's path. That historic meeting between spacecraft and comet is not slated to happen until November 2014. Then comes the hard part: landing on a moving comet.

The Rosetta craft's Philae little refrigerator-sized lab has landing gear designed just for that purpose. First, it will literally "harpoon" the comet. Then, to keep the spacecraft from just bouncing off the comet in low gravity, its legs have been outfitted with "ice screws" (comets are dirty ice balls, or icy dirt balls, depending on which astronomer you ask) capable of drilling into the comet, anchoring the craft in place. A small rocket engine will fire as needed to hold the lander in position while all this is going on.

And then Rosetta can get on with its primary mission: getting up close and personal with Comet 67P, by collecting data on its composition. Hopefully we'll learn more about what little comets are made of — and possibly even gain a bit more insight into Einstein's theory of relativity.

While we're waiting, there are LEGO Rosetta kits for us to play with.