BY NICK EAKES
For the first time ever, the human race has landed a probe on the surface of a comet. These “dirty snowballs,” made of mostly ice and rock, could hold the key details about how our Solar System, and even life on Earth originated. This is big news.
The European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta Spacecraft--named for the ancient Rosetta Stone, a volcanic slab inscribed with carvings from multiple archaic languages that helped to illuminate some of the origins of modern culture--has completed a key phase of its complex journey to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In the spirit of these ancient findings, Matt Taylor (ESA Rosetta Project Scientist) stated:
“Rosetta is trying to answer the very big questions about the history of our Solar System. What were the conditions like at its infancy and how did it evolve? What role did comets play in this evolution? How do comets work?”
The spacecraft, launched in March 2004, has endured flybys of asteroids, multiple gravity assists from Earth and Mars, and a period of hibernation en route to its icy destination.
You might have heard some buzz about this mission a couple of months ago when Rosetta emerged from its three-year hibernation as it approached the comet. Rosetta, now within a somewhat stable orbit around the comet, has deployed its lander, Philae (named for a site in Egypt where the Rosetta Stone hieroglyphic translations were discovered), to the surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
The deployment and safe landing of Philae is no small feat. In fact, this process did not go particularly smoothly, much to the dismay of space enthusiasts around the globe. This difficulty, however, did not come as a huge surprise to the ESA team.
“We are extremely relieved to be safely on the surface of the comet, especially given the extra challenges that we faced with the health of the lander,” said Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager at the DLR German Aerospace Center.
Around 11 a.m. EST on November 12, 2014, Philae approached the comet like a hi-tech Ahab ready to conquer its frigid White Whale with harpoons and all.
The plan was to fire the harpoons at the comet in order to pull Philae down towards the surface, then deploy “ice screws” to secure the craft to the treacherous terrain. Instead of gently touching down at its intended speed, it seems an issue occurred resulting in Philae briefly touching down at its desired destination, then BOUNCING back into space only to plummet down onto the surface, BOUNCE once more, then land at an unintended location.
Even though this landing didn’t quite go according to plan, Philae is transmitting information to Rosetta (which, in turn, sends signals and images back to Earth) and is beginning to conduct its scientific experiments on the surface. ESA mission specialists are intently monitoring the vitals of both spacecraft and lander and will illuminate the cause of the mishap in a future report.
So, through all of the preparations, temperature regulation, hibernation, and stress of deployment and landing, we have successfully landed on the surface of a comet. Humans have taken another giant leap towards understanding our origins.
Our heartfelt congratulations go out to all of the scientists and engineers that have made this mission possible. If you’d like to learn more about space exploration and the night sky, stop by Morehead Planetarium and Science Center for a show this weekend, we’d love to see you!
If you’d like more information about ESA’s Rosetta Mission, follow along at the following links:
Nick Eakes is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador and an Astronomy Educator at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Photos: 1. The size of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko compared to downtown Raleigh, NC. Image courtesy of Tony Rice. 2. Image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s surface taken by Philae lander as it approached the comet. Image courtesy of ESA/Rosetta 3. Philae’s rocky (icy?) landing procedure. Image courtesy of ESA/@Philae_ROMAP