Recently, executives and scientists of the European Space Agency high-fived and hugged each other when their mechanical space probe Philae landed successfully on Comet 67P—a landing taking place 310 million miles away from Earth!
“Our ambitious Rosetta mission has secured a place in the history books: not only is it the first to rendezvous with and orbit a comet, but it is now also the first to deliver a lander to a comet’s surface,” says Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s director general. Rosetta is the name of the mother ship that delivered Philae to the comet. Rosetta was launched in March of 2004 and travelled 6.4 billion kilometers—over 300 million miles—through the Solar System before arriving at the comet on August 6th 2014.
By now, you’ve probably all seen the first picture taken on the surface of a comet (seen here). People are really excited about the new information that Philae will be sending back to Earth. “Rosetta is trying to answer the very big questions about the history of our solar system,” Matt Taylor, ESA Rosetta project scientist, said in an article on the ESA website. “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?”
Philae is equipped with an array of experiments to photograph and test the surface of comet 67P as well as getting an up close look at what happens when a comet gets close to the sun and grows its iconic “tail.” It can also drill into the comet’s surface and deliver materials into its onboard ovens for testing. Sensors on the lander will measure the density and thermal properties of the surface, gas analyzers will help detect and identify any complex organic chemicals that might be present and other tests will measure the magnetic field and interaction between the comet and solar wind.
As exciting as this news is, CNN.com is reporting that Philae might be in a bit of a sticky situation.
Comet 67P has a very weak gravity, so Philae was designed with anchoring harpoons to shoot into the comet to fix the spacecraft to the surface. ESA reported in a news conference that the harpoons failed to fire and Philae is not firmly secure. Coupled with that equipment malfunction, the comet has a much softer, sandier surface than what the engineers were expecting, causing Philae to lose its grip. “So maybe we didn’t land once — we landed twice,” Philae lander manager Stephan Ulamec said.
Fortunately, Philae is designed with a turbo thruster on the top of its payload, which forced the lander back down to the comet’s surface. Unfortunately, Philae landed in a very shady spot on the comet and is powered by solar panels. Even though Philae is functioning just fine right now, it may have some difficulty in the future recharging its batteries.
But aside from the rough landing(s), scientists are already pleased with progress of the mission, and they’re wowed by what’s already been accomplished. Daniel Brown, an astronomy expert at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom, tells CNN: “Apart from the amazing scientific results, the sheer challenge and ambition of such a mission is outstanding and illustrates how our space exploration of the solar system has become more advanced and successful. It gives us much to hope for in future missions.”
“It’s got an awesome profile — the adventure of the decade-long journey necessary to capture its prey, flying past the Earth, Mars and two asteroids on the way,” NASA’s chief scientist, Ellen Stofan, tells CNN. “No one has ever gotten data like Rosetta has gotten. No one has ever been able to land on a comet the way Philae just did.”
We want to congratulate ESA and Philae on their historic scientific achievement. Judging from the great year we’ve had so far for aerospace engineering and space exploration, this latest milestone is just one more indication that 2014 is a historic year for space explorers everywhere!
photo credit: NBCNews.com