The European Space Agency (ESA) has completed the final design of its Rosetta orbiter and is preparing the spacecraft for a comet landing in 2012.

NASA recently cancelled its Champollion comet lander project because of budget cuts. Europe "has seized the opportunity the USA always misses", said ESA director of science Roger Bonnet in London earlier this month, unveiling a model of the Rosetta.

The orbiter, which is intended to provide data on the birth and evolution of planets and the origins of life on earth, is scheduled to rendezvous with the comet Wirtanen in 2012.

Part of ESA's Horizon 2000 long-term scientific programme, it will be launched by an Ariane 5 from Kourou, French Guiana, in January 2003. The Rosetta will require gravity assistance from the earth and Mars to gain sufficient speed to reach the comet. It is due to go around Mars in May 2005, returning to the earth's vicinity in October 2005 and October 2007, before heading away from the sun directly towards Wirtanen.

The Rosetta's rendezvous manoeuvre with Wirtanen is due in November 2011 and close approach is set for 20 May 2012, with orbit insertion around the comet's nucleus planned for 28 May 2012.

The orbiter will release a 100kg (220lb) lander on to the comet's solid surface. The lander will conduct eight experiments, relaying the data back to earth via the Rosetta.

Source: Flight International