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Congratulations to the European Space Agency for successfully landing the robot probe “Philae” on comet 67P!  The lander, which is about the size of a washing machine, made a soft touch-down on the comet at 3:30 a.m. Brooklyn time. The comet itself has a diameter of four kilometers (2.5 miles) meaning it is approximately as wide as the Verrazano Bridge is long.  To bring such objects together as they hurtle at ridiculous speeds through the vast darkness of space is a tremendous feat of engineering.  Ferrebeekeeper described the long and complex journey of Philae’s mothership, Rosetta, in this previous post.

An artist's mock-up of how the probe might look on the comet's surface (the underdressed astrophysicist is added for scale and is presumably not there)

An artist’s mock-up of how the probe might look on the comet’s surface (the underdressed astrophysicist is added for scale and is presumably not there)

Philae is equipped with space harpoons which are designed to fire into the comet’s surface–thus securing the craft to the flying iceball with lamprey-like tenacity. Actually, a lamprey might be the wrong comparison: the lander looks astonishingly like a bacteriophage (a fact which I think is exceedingly strange and funny). At any rate, it is presently unclear whether the landing harpoons correctly deployed into the comet’s surface.  We’ll know more in coming days.

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Indeed, in coming days we should be finding out lots of things regarding the comet.  The lander has a small drill which is meant to mine 20 cm (8 inches) into the icy substrate.  The sophisticated machine is also equipped with devices to analyze the core sample, gas analyzers to identify any complex organic compounds, and instruments to measure the comet’s magnetic field.   Scientists will be keeping a close eye on the comet to see what effect the solar wind has on it as 67P sweeps in close to the sun in coming months.

ayiomamitis_mcnaught2009r1November 13th UPDATE:  It seems the plucky lander had a more adventuresome landing than yesterday’s rosy headlines may have indicated.  Apparently Philae landed not once, but multiple times as it bounced down a cliff and fetched up (on two of three legs) in a shadow.  Mission controllers are contemplating whether to fire the landing harpoons, but are concerned that the resultant explosion could send Philae careening off the comet into the outer dark.  Anyone who has thrown a washing machine down an ice cliff in low gravity will surely sympathize with their predicament…

Artist's Impression of the Rosetta Mission

Artist’s Impression of the Rosetta Mission

Devoted readers have most likely been fretting and worrying about what happened to the ESA spacecraft Rosetta which Ferrebeekeeper wrote about back in January. In that article, I wrote that the spacecraft was meant to rendezvous with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in May—but that never happened. What’s the story? Did something go wrong?

Fortunately today’s space news is good: after a ten-year chase which has spanned back and forth across the solar system, the little spacecraft finally entered orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet and the spacecraft are currently about 405 million kilometers from Earth (which puts them between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter). It turns out that May was actually the date that pre-orbit maneuvers were first commenced—it has taken three months to bring the spacecraft into proper position for orbital insertion. I’m sorry I got your hopes up prematurely, but this is a good illustration of how delicately operations must be conducted when dealing with objects going 55,000 kilometers per hour (34,000 miles per hour).

 

 An August 3 photograph of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by space probe Rosettas OSIRIS from a distance of 285 km (Photo: ESA/Rosetta)


An August 3 photograph of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by space probe Rosettas OSIRIS from a distance of 285 km (Photo: ESA/Rosetta)

The probe has already taken some amazing pictures of the comet which has two distinct masses joined together by a narrow neck—rather like a rubber duck. We can expect even more stunning pictures of the weird icy surface of the comet as the probe edges nearer to the big dirty snowball over the next few months. The real excitement will(probably) take place in November which is when the probe Philae is tentatively scheduled to launch. Philae is a comet lander which looks curiously like a bacteriophage. It will shoot harpoons into the comet and then fasten down onto the surface to study the origins of the solar system! Get ready for a thrilling fall!

Artist's impression of the Philae landing craft, anchored by harpoons and drills to the comet's surface

Artist’s impression of the Philae landing craft, anchored by harpoons and drills to the comet’s surface

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