Monday, November 10, 2014

Landing on a Comet: High Adventure in Space

This Wednesday, a European landing craft called "Philae" will attempt humanity's first landing on a fast-moving comet (a complex chunk of ice approaching from the depths of space.)

After a 10-year, 4-billion mile journey to Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (C-G for short), the Rosetta spacecraft (which is now orbiting the comet) will drop a probe about the size of a kitchen range from a height of 13 miles.  Taking some 7 hours to slowly land on its icy target, Philae will be moving at only 2 miles per hour at the end.  Still, the gravity of the two-mile wide comet is so low, it could bounce off and move away or simply fall over and roll.   To prevent this, the designers have equipped Philae with harpoons to grab the comet and with legs that have rotating screws in them to hold on to the ice for dear life.

Our robot representatives have only landed on six worlds so far: the Moon, Mars, Venus, Saturn's moon Titan, and two asteroids.  None of those landings were quite as difficult and strange as this one.  It takes radio signals from Rosetta about half an hour to get back to Earth even at the speed of light.  Thus the European Space Agency controllers can't help Philae if it gets into trouble.  Its own computer software will have to make the decisions that will lead to its survival or loss. 

For a complete picture of Comet C-G, see my August 6 post.  The photo accompanying today's post is a fantasy montage, showing the Philae lander safely on the comet's icy, boulder-strewn surface.  The full comet has a weird L-shaped structure, as if two oval comets had somehow stuck together at a weird angle. Because its shape is so complex, its gravity is not simple either, making landing even more challenging. But if Philae lands, its 10 instruments will give us our first-ever up-close look at one of the chunks of ancient ice that are building blocks left over from the early days of our solar system. 

Keep your fingers and toes crossed that the landing succeeds.  For a basic animation of what the spacecraft will do and what instruments it carries, please see:  

A fuller documentary about the Rosetta mission, see: