Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Voting day is November 4th this year but November 11 is something important too; it is the date that Rosetta, the ESA’s comet chasing probe, releases its robot Philae down to the comets surface. Philae is a spider-like robot and once landing on the surface will release screws and harpoons to grab onto the comet in such a way that the lack of gravitation will not matter. All of the commands for this journey - a short 10 or so feet, will have been given to Philae in advance so when it comes time, it is all up to Rosetta & Philae. (The distance is so far away that real-time radio control will be impossible


The European Space Agency (Esa) says it will be a one-shot opportunity. Events will be taking place so far away that real-time radio control will be impossible.

Instead, the process will have to be fully automated with the final commands uploaded to Rosetta and Philae several days in advance.


To that end, the highly anticipated November landing on comet 67P/Churyuov-Gerasimenko,  scientists and engineers have spent weeks studying, looking for a place to land a small robot. Originally five landing sites were under consideration and now it has been reduced to the primary landing site and a back-up. The spot that has been chosen for the primary site is a relatively smooth area (all being relative) on the smaller of the comet’s two lobes. One of the benefits to the chosen site are good light but also periods of dark which will allow time to cool some of Philae’s systems. Of course that doesn’t ensure anything but they are only looking to give Philae the best chance possible. There is time to study the area more and that is what these next few weeks will be spent doing. They have until mid-October for a go-no go decision.


No one is under the impression that this will be an easy task. Comet 67P has a surface with deep hollows and precipices, hazardous boulders and fractures and the amount of sheer luck it will take combined with the tedious and careful planning will hopefully result in a safe landing.


It all comes down to the November 11thlanding; the separation, descent, and landing procedure will take many hours. However, if Philae should land successfully, it will be a first in the history of space exploration.


Regardless – all the data collected thus far and regardless of Philae successful landing, Rosetta will be shadowing the comet for much the next year. As the comet gets warmed by the Sun in its swing around the Sun, Rosetta will be there. As the ices vaporize, comet 67P throws off jets of gas and a cloud of dust, then too, Rosetta will be there. It has always since the onset been the objective -  to catch the comet with the Rosetta probe and to study it from orbit. This is has already succeeded. The spacecraft's array of remote-sensing instruments are currently investigating the comet's properties, trying to figure out what the comet is made up of.


No spacecraft has ever orbited an active comet before and certainly forgetting the data for a second the difficulties in the instrumentation as well as operating the probe present new challenges constantly but the ESA has managed nicely and understanding how difficult the next phase will be, I for one am betting on them!


Just the advances to chemistry and all science from data thus far is bound to be overwhelming but assume that Philae lands successfully, puts its drill to the comet and draws samples into its onboard lab; sure Rosetta is going down in history, there’s no doubt, but Philae will be the robot/probe of legend.


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