At its 68th meeting on 4/5 November 1993, ESA's Science Programme Committee endorsed the recommendation of the Space Science Advisory Committee to implement ROSETTA, a comet rendezvous mission, as the third cornerstone and FIRST (the Far Infrared Space Telescope) as the fourth cornerstone of the Horizon 2000 programme. The launch dates will be 2003 and 2006, respectively. However, FIRST would return its scientific data earlier than ROSETTA, as the travel time to the comet is rather long.
ROSETTA was originally conceived as a comet-nucleus sample-return mission that should have brought back cometary material to Earth to be able to study it with the most advanced laboratory analysis techniques available.
The original mission could not be implemented as it was too ambitious and too complex. Therefore in 1992 the concept had to be revised. The mission was reconsidered as being performed by ESA alone on the basis of European technology and the Ariane 5 launch capability. However, the opportunity for other agencies to join and augment the scientific return was left open, and international partners have already indicated to ESA their interest to join.
The new baseline mission is a rendezvous with a comet and at least one (most probably two) flybys of asteroids. After gravity-assist manoeuvres at the Earth and Mars or Venus to acquire the necessary energy to reach the comet at its aphelion (the part of the orbit farthest from the Sun), the spacecraft will stay with the comet along its trajectory into the inner solar system through perihelion (the orbital point nearest to the Sun) to study the material that constitutes the comet, and the cometary processes that evolve with the decreasing distance from the Sun. A Surface Science Station will be deployed onto the comets' nucleus surface to provide the means for in-situ studies of the nucleus.
The mission retains as far as possible the objectives of the original comet-nucleus sample-return mission and concentrates on the in-situ investigations of cometary matter and the structure of the nucleus. "As we cannot bring the cometary material into our terrestrial laboratories, we will take our laboratories to the comet" said Dr. Roger Bonnet, ESA Director of Science. Potential target comets are Schwassmann- Wachmann 3, Wirtanen, Finlay and Brooks 2 for a launch in the time interval 2002-2004.
"Both teams for ROSETTA and FIRST" added Dr. Bonnet, "defined excellent missions with exciting prospects for the science to be achieved. For programmatic reasons ROSETTA will be implemented as Cornerstone 3, following Cluster and SOHO and XMM".
"However", he continued, "the work on FIRST will proceed at a very high level to further develop the critical technologies, like for instance the 3 m telescope mirror, the coolers and the detectors. The major elements of the Horizon 2000 science programme are now under way and we will start the process to define the 'post-Horizon 2000' programme".