Mission Rosetta: Behind the names

PARIS- If Europe's comet-chasing quest goes well, Rosetta, Philae and even the tongue-twisting Churyumov-Gerasimenko may become household names by the end of the year.
Here's an explanation for the names:

- ROSETTA: The European Space Agency craft is named after the Rosetta Stone, the inscription carved into a rock now housed in the British Museum in London, that helped 19th-century archaeologists unravel one of the greatest enigmas of their time. The stone, bearing a text in hieroglyphs and Greek, was found by French soldiers in 1799 near the village of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile delta. An English physicist, Thomas Young, and a French scholar, Jean-Francois Champollion, were able to figure out most of the hieroglyphs thanks to the Greek equivalent. The mysterious culture of the Pharaohs was at last explained, and it is hoped Rosetta the spacecraft will be equally revealing about the life of comets.
- PHILAE: A 15-year-old Italian girl, Serena Olga Vismara, proposed Philae in a Europe-wide competition to name Rosetta's scientific payload, a fridge-sized lab that will conduct experiments on the comet's surface. The name comes from an obelisk, found on the island of Philae on the River Nile, that itself was the key to Rosetta. The obelisk, now standing in a garden of a country house in the southern English county of Dorset, has a bilingual inscription bearing the names of Cleopatra and Ptolemy. This gave Champollion the final clue to decipher the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone.
- 67P/CHURYUMOV-GERASIMENKO: The comet targeted by Rosetta is named after two Soviet astronomers credited with discovering it in 1969 -- Klim Churyumov of the University of Kiev and Svetlana Gerasimenko, of the Institute of Astrophysics in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Churyumov spotted the comet on a photographic plate taken by Gerasimenko, which explains why a dual credit was accepted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the Paris-based agency that approves names for heavenly bodies. "P" refers to a periodic comet, or a comet whose revolution around the Sun is less than 200 years. "67" refers to a list number kept by another agency, the US-based Minor Planet Center. The official name is sometimes shortened to "C-G" for ease of pronunciation.

Friday, January 17th 2014

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