Europe set to make space history with comet landing

November 8, 2014 by Richard Ingham And Veronique Martinache
Photo released by the European Space Agency shows an artist impression of Rosetta's lander Philae (back view) on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

One of the biggest gambles in space history comes to a climax on Wednesday when Europe attempts to make the first-ever landing on a comet.

Speeding towards the Sun at 65,000 kilometres (40,600 miles) per hour, a lab called Philae will detach from its mothership Rosetta, heading for a deep-space rendezvous laden with risk.

The 100-kilogram (220-pound) probe will seek out a minuscule landing site on the treacherous surface of an object darker than coal, half a billion kilometres (300 million miles) from home.

"It's not going to be an easy business," was the understated prediction of Philippe Gaudon of France's National Centre for Space (CNES) as the mission prepared to enter countdown mode.

The stakes facing Rosetta managers in Darmstadt, Germany are daunting as the 1.3-billion-euro ($1.61-billion) project reaches a peak.

Two decades of work have been poured into what could be a crowning moment in space exploration.

The goal: the first laboratory research into the primeval matter of the Solar System—ancient ice and dust that, some experts believe, may have helped to sow life on Earth itself.

According to this theory, comets pounded the fledgling Earth 4.6 billion years ago, providing it with complex organic carbon molecules and precious water.

Rosetta has already sent home fascinating data on the , but Philae will provide the first boots-on-the-ground assessment, using 10 instruments to study the comet's physical and chemical composition.

Like Rosetta, it will wield a mass spectrometer, a high-tech tool to analyse a sample's chemical signature, aimed at drawing up a complete carbon inventory.

The showstopper find would be molecules known as left-handed amino acids, the European Space Agency (ESA) says.

"These are the 'bricks' with which all proteins on Earth are built," it says.

Factfiles on the Rosetta probe, the Philae robot lab and comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Nail-biting

But getting Philae into position will be a white-knuckle ride.

After its launch in 2004, Rosetta spent 10 years zig-zagging around Earth and Mars, using the planets' gravitational pull as a slingshot to build up speed to reach its prey, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

But when Rosetta finally caught up with it in August, it witnessed a sight that caused despondency back on Earth.

Far from being a simple potato shape, "67P" turned out be two gnarled lobes about four km across joined by a narrow neck.

It looked like an super-dark rubber duck, ravaged by aeons in orbit, turning slowly in space.

Its surface was a nightmare of crests and gullies, studded with hundreds of rocks as high as 50 metres (165 feet) and wicked slopes with an incline greater than 30 degrees.

This was a huge, unexpected problem, said Francis Rocard, a French astrophysicist.

"It took a billion calculations to find a decent landing site"—one offering a fair chance that Philae could survive and meet scientific goals, he said.

If final "go/no-go" assessments give the green light, Philae will separate from Rosetta about 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the comet at 0835 GMT on Wednesday.

Photo released on September 19, 2014 by the European Space Agency shows a four-image NAVCAM mosaic of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

"Then it's a very gentle freefall for the next seven hours," said Sylvain Lodiot, in charge of flight operations.

After that comes the hard bit.

No one knows what a comet's surface is like.

Is it hard and crusty, like a shell? Crumbly? Slippery? Is it brittle—will it crack, causing Philae to sink into some fudgy or spongey substance below?

Seeking to cover all the possibilities, Philae's designers have equipped the lander with three outstretched legs designed to dampen the impact.

When the lab touches down, it will fire two harpoons to secure it to what—hopefully—will be a robust surface, while a thruster on top of the lander will fire to cancel out bounce. Ice screws in the lander feet will deploy for extra grip.

The chances of success? "Seventy percent," said Gaudon, admitting to days of doubt that the chances were much better than one in two.

"We need to be lucky," added Andrea Accomazzo, flight director.

And only then can Philae start its real mission of analysing the makeup of the comet.

Batteries will be enough to keep the probe going for 60 hours, but recharging from sunlight "could keep us going until March," said Rocard.

Stage set for comet drama

The stage is set for the most dramatic scene yet in the epic voyage of Europe's space probe Rosetta, whose payload, Philae, will make the first landing on a comet next Wednesday:

THE SET

The historic attempt to land on a comet will take place more than 500 million kilometres (310 million miles) from Earth.

Approved in 1993, the production cost about 1.3 billion euro ($1.61 billion), involving around 200 backstage staff and 50 companies from 14 European countries and the United States.

THE CAST

ROSETTA, a three-tonne aluminium box of 2.8 x 2.1 x 2.0 metres (9.2 x 6.9 x 6.5 feet) with two 14m solar arrays.

The orbiter carries 11 instruments to map the comet's surface and analyse its atmosphere, gases in its tail, the dust it emits and its subsurface temperature, mass, density and gravity.

Rosetta got its name from the stone that led to the deciphering in the 19th century of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

PHILAE, a 100-kg (220-pound) lab named after an obelisk on the Nile whose inscriptions were a key to the Rosetta stone.

It carries 10 instruments, including X-ray detectors to scan the comet's composition, micro-cameras for panoramic shots and radiowave probes of the comet's internal structure.

Philae has a drill to take subsurface comet samples from a depth of about 20 centimetres (eight inches) for onboard chemical analysis.

It will relay the results of its experiments to Rosetta, to be passed to Earth.

Its battery is charged to give it around 60 hours' operating time, but the probe could continue its work until March if the sunlight and temperature are right for its solar panels.

67P/CHURYUMOV-GERASIMENKO, a pitch-black 4-km comet named after two Ukrainian astronomers who first spotted it in 1969.

The first part of its moniker refers to the fact that it was the 67th "periodic comet" discovered—these orbit the Sun in less than 200 years.

The comet comprises two lobes joined by a narrow "neck", giving it the silhouette of a toy bath duck.

If it could be brought back to Earth, it would smell like a bad mix of rotten eggs and horse urine, among other things, tests of its escaping gases suggest.

The prime landing site, dubbed Agilkia after an island on the Nile, is on the smaller lobe roughly where the duck's forehead would be.

THE WARM-UP

Launched on March 2, 2004, Rosetta was placed in a two-and-a-half-year hibernation in June 2011 to limit power and fuel consumption on its six-billion-kilometre (3.7-billion-mile) journey.

Because there was no rocket powerful enough to place it directly into orbit, the craft was designed to be catapulted around the Solar System with gravity boosts from Mars and Earth on four flybys between 2005 and 2009.

Awoken from slumber in January this year, Rosetta arrived at the comet on August 6.

AND NOW, SHOWTIME

Once Rosetta is aligned correctly, Philae is meant to self-eject at 0835 GMT from a distance of some 20 km and unfold its three legs for what will hopefully be a gentle touchdown.

The self-adjusting landing gear is meant to ensure Philae stays upright, even if it lands on a slope. It will avoid escaping the comet's weak gravity by shooting two harpoons into its surface and using screws in its feet to secure itself to the surface.

If all goes well, signals giving confirmation of the landing will arrive on Earth at 1602 GMT.

Highlights of unmanned space exploration

In 1942, the Nazis' V-2 rocket became the first man-made object to touch the fringes of space.

Since then, humankind has sent scouts around the Solar System to explore its central star, planets and other bodies.

If all goes well, another milestone will be reached next Wednesday when Europe lands a robot lab on a comet.

Here are other firsts in unmanned space exploration:

SPUTNIK 1

The first artificial satellite was launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, ushering in the space age and the Cold War tussle for the cosmos.

The beachball-sized, aluminium sphere took 98 minutes to orbit the Earth, and sent the first-ever message received from space.

Another pioneering satellite is NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, placed in near-Earth orbit in 1990, which has provided dazzling pictures of objects in deep space.

LUNA 2

Another Soviet record, this probe was the first man-made craft to reach another celestial body, crashing into the Moon in 1959 and scattering Soviet pennants on its surface.

Its successor Luna 3 sent back the first-ever picture of the far side of the Moon later that same year, and Luna 9 made the first soft landing on the Moon in 1966.

VENERA 3

This Soviet lander was the first to touch the surface of another planet—Venus, in 1966. A landing capsule was released successfully, but contact with it was lost and no scientific data was returned.

The first soft landing on a planet, also Venus, was achieved by Venera 7, four years later.

Venera 7 transmitted the first signals from another planet, and revealed that Venus, far from being a home from home, would be lethal for humans.

PIONEER 10

In 1973, the NASA spacecraft carried out the first flyby of Jupiter, swinging past the biggest planet of the Solar System at a distance of 130,000 km (80,000 miles).

In 1983, it became the first spacecraft to travel past the orbit of Neptune, the outermost of the acknowledged planets.

Pioneer 10 and its sister, Pioneer 11, carry aluminium plaques with the drawing of a man and a woman along with information indicating where the probes came from.

VOYAGER 1 AND 2

Launched in 1977 to explore further afield than ever before, Voyager 1 returned detailed photographs of Jupiter and Saturn before becoming, in 1998, the most distant human-made object.

In 2012, it entered interstellar space, the region between the stars.

Like its companion Voyager 2, which in 1986 became the first spacecraft to fly past Uranus, the vessel carries a 30-cm gold-plated copper disc.

The record includes a "greeting to the universe" in 60 languages, music and 115 images of Earth—complete with a stylus with which to play it.

GALILEO

Launched in 1989, this NASA mission became the first to go into orbit around a gas giant planet, Jupiter, in 1995. It carried a range of science instruments and an atmospheric probe.

It found evidence for liquid water oceans under the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa.

MARS PATHFINDER

An innovative airbag cocoon cushioned the landing of this spacecraft on the Red Planet in 1997, from which emerged the first-ever wheeled rover, dubbed Sojourner, to explore another planet.

NEAR Shoemaker

The first landing on an asteroid happened about 355 million km from Earth in 2001, touching down at a gentle 1.5 metres per second.

Four years later, Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft was the first to land on, take a sample, and take off from an asteroid, Itokawa, and send the dust it collected back to Earth.

CASSINI

A joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian ASI, this explorer in 2004 became the first to enter the orbit of Saturn, from where it has closely studied the giant planet's magnificent rings.

In 2005, Cassini sent down a probe, Huygens, to Saturn's largest moon Titan—a strange world with lakes of liquid methane.

STARDUST

In 2004, this NASA mission was the first to collect samples from the wake of a comet, dubbed 81P/Wild, as it shaved by at a distance 236 km. The particles were returned to Earth in a capsule in January 2006 for analysis.

Explore further: Europe gives green light for comet landing site

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36 comments

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sirchick
5 / 5 (6) Nov 08, 2014
Hope theres a live stream of the events unfolding :D
dougp50
4.2 / 5 (5) Nov 08, 2014
I hope this leads to them using comets as a delivery system for future space exploration.
Doug_Huffman
5 / 5 (3) Nov 08, 2014
Hope theres a live stream of the events unfolding
LOL At mission central maybe. It is a half-hour lightspeed from 67P.
Doug_Huffman
5 / 5 (3) Nov 08, 2014
I hope this leads to them using comets as a delivery system for future space exploration.
You do realize that it took ten years to get to the comet. Not a practical "delivery system."
britton_beckham
2 / 5 (4) Nov 08, 2014
"ice screws"

Into rock? Can't wait to see what happens here. Rosetta is making history.
someone11235813
1 / 5 (1) Nov 08, 2014
Wasn't there a theory that the left handed molecules that life used could have been caused by an ancient super nova that polarised more left handed than right handed molecules.
OZGuy
5 / 5 (7) Nov 08, 2014
Simply awesome work!
cantdrive85
1.4 / 5 (10) Nov 09, 2014
But when Rosetta finally caught up with it in August, it witnessed a sight that caused despondency back on Earth.

LOL Noooooo! Our theory has been falsified by observation. Say it ain't so... Despondency should not be a trait experienced by scientists inre to their beloved theories. Then again, with billions invested based upon nonsensical claptrap theories which ignore experimentation and observation, we should all feel despondency.

Far from being a simple potato shape, "67P" turned out be two gnarled lobes about four km across joined by a narrow neck.

The two lobed feature has been created in a laboratory using electric discharge, far from surprising to an alternative theory of comet origin.

The dual lobed objects as described at this APS meeting almost 10 years ago.
http://meetings.a...nt/29058

and here.
http://ieeexplore...=4287076

cantdrive85
1.4 / 5 (10) Nov 09, 2014
No one knows what a comet's surface is like.


Obviously they didn't pay attention to Deep Impact and the follow-up EPOXI missions.
http://www.holosc...mpact-2/

I know a couple of old fools will follow claiming electric discharge is pseudoscience, yet the theory is continually supported by the evidence whereas the standard comet theory is just as often falsified.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (11) Nov 09, 2014
'murica is offside now

Three of the systems on board were developed under NASA auspices (two spectrometers an an ion sensor)
Vietvet
4.6 / 5 (11) Nov 09, 2014
No one knows what a comet's surface is like.


Obviously they didn't pay attention to Deep Impact and the follow-up EPOXI missions.
http://www.holosc...mpact-2/

I know a couple of old fools will follow claiming electric discharge is pseudoscience, yet the theory is continually supported by the evidence whereas the standard comet theory is just as often falsified.


Of course you link to a pseudoscience blog instead of offering peer reviewed empirical evidence.
Egleton
1 / 5 (8) Nov 09, 2014
Peer reviewed? You mean group-think?
Empirical is good.
My money is on a flash-bang as the lander gets near the comet. If I am wrong then that idea gets tossed in the trash can without regret.
Let us hope that the lander isn't destroyed by the discharge so that the event can be denied by lesser mortals than myself.
alfie_null
5 / 5 (8) Nov 09, 2014
The two lobed feature has been created in a laboratory using electric discharge, far from surprising to an alternative theory of comet origin.

Quick quiz (for the rest of us - not for you, cantdrive, as you'd fail anyway): which particular fallacy is cantdrive using?

One place electricity is certainly doing interesting things is within cantdrive's cranium.
zoljah
5 / 5 (7) Nov 09, 2014
Hope theres a live stream of the events unfolding
LOL At mission central maybe. It is a half-hour lightspeed from 67P.


There will be a livestream on esa.int
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (5) Nov 09, 2014
The two lobed feature has been created in a laboratory using electric discharge, far from surprising to an alternative theory of comet origin.

Quick quiz (for the rest of us - not for you, cantdrive, as you'd fail anyway): which particular fallacy is cantdrive using?

One place electricity is certainly doing interesting things is within cantdrive's cranium.

Of course, experimentation is now considered a fallacy. Reality is the bane of theoretical physics.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (9) Nov 09, 2014
which particular fallacy is cantdrive using?
@Alfie_null
you think that is bad... you should see what he says here: http://phys.org/n...firstCmt

he pulled a reg mundy- there is no gravity! LOL
The atmosphere is analogous to a cellular membrane, separating the charged body from the surrounding electrical potential of the solar wind. And yes, it is NOT held there by gravity.
i guess he learned this one at eu university too where everything must be true because an engineer said it...

i don't know which is more relevant: https://en.wikipe...r_effect
or maybe
https://en.wikipe...disorder
Uncle Ira
4.3 / 5 (12) Nov 09, 2014
Howeei, when they land this buggy on him, it sure is going to make all the magnetic plasma Skippys mad.

They been trying to drum it into my head that comets is made from pinched plasma plumes flowing through the bulkhead currents and there ain't no dust or rocks in them at all. Or ice either It ain't going to be pretty either to see them when the voltmeters on the comet buggy read zero volts.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (5) Nov 10, 2014
he pulled a reg mundy- there is no gravity! LOL

There you go lying again, it's as if you read two or three lines and make the rest up yourself based upon your dementia/Alzheimer's affected brain.

Howeei, when they land this buggy on him, it sure is going to make all the magnetic plasma Skippys mad.

Not nearly as mad as those who spent years and billions developing "ice screws".

They been trying to drum it into my head that comets is made from pinched plasma plumes flowing through the bulkhead currents and there ain't no dust or rocks in them at all.

Put down the crack rock and seek help Q-Star Jr.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (8) Nov 10, 2014
cd, he quoted you, and accurately too.
A vast artifice of ideology based upon the belief that the atmosphere is a gaseous layer held in place by gravity. The fact of the matter is, the EM field and atmosphere of the Earth exists to protect the charged body (Earth) from the surrounding plasma environment of the Sun.
First of all, this is a non-sequitur; there is nothing saying that "protect[ing]... Earth" is obviated by or obviates the atmosphere being retained by gravity. Second of all, claiming the atmosphere is *not* held on by gravity is simply silliness.
yep
1 / 5 (6) Nov 10, 2014
Venus with virtually the same gravity as earth has 90 times the atmospheric pressure, seems more than gravity is at play here you guys better catch up.
http://hypertextb...iu.shtml
Uncle Ira
3.9 / 5 (7) Nov 10, 2014
Venus with virtually the same gravity as earth has 90 times the atmospheric pressure, seems more than gravity is at play here you guys better catch up.
http://hypertextb...iu.shtml


I sure do hate to embarrass you Skippy but there is a really simple reason for that. So simple that even somebody like ol Ira knows why that is a foolish thing to say. You want to know it?

Good, because I am going to tell it. The stuffs in the Venus air is made out of stuffs a lot heavier than our air. All we got is the nitrogen and the oxygen and some co2's. In the Venus air the stuffs is made from different heavier molecules like methanes and sulphuic acids and such like. And because all that stuffs is heavier, they weigh more, which means they put more pressure on you if you were stupid enough to try go there to check is ol Ira is right.

cantdrive85
1 / 5 (4) Nov 10, 2014
cd, he quoted you, and accurately too.
A vast artifice of ideology based upon the belief that the atmosphere is a gaseous layer held in place by gravity. The fact of the matter is, the EM field and atmosphere of the Earth exists to protect the charged body (Earth) from the surrounding plasma environment of the Sun.
First of all, this is a non-sequitur; there is nothing saying that "protect[ing]... Earth" is obviated by or obviates the atmosphere being retained by gravity. Second of all, claiming the atmosphere is *not* held on by gravity is simply silliness.

Yep, and nowhere did I say there was "no gravity", as such he is lying.
When Birkeland created an atmosphere in his Terrella experiments it had nothing to do with gravity, just as cell membranes have nothing to do with gravity.
Scroofinator
1 / 5 (6) Nov 11, 2014
I think the lander is going to crash based on an a gravitational anomaly that won't be accounted for in GR. Comets are a different beast altogether, as the recent passing of Siding Spring has showed us.
saposjoint
5 / 5 (4) Nov 11, 2014
Scrote, you messed up: You don't think, you just spew stupidities.
Scroofinator
1 / 5 (4) Nov 11, 2014
and you add nothing to the discussion, which makes you worthless
zoljah
not rated yet Nov 11, 2014
rosetta, your data is confused.. ooo
zoljah
not rated yet Nov 11, 2014
everything fine here.

Philae
zoljah
not rated yet Nov 11, 2014
troubles .. are part of the plan!

ESOC
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (5) Nov 11, 2014
There you go lying again, it's as if you read two or three lines and make the rest up yourself based upon your dementia/Alzheimer's affected brain
@cd
and what we see here is your complete inability to read and comprehend english
where, exactly, in the quote that i left
which is your text VERBATIM
did i mis-quote you?
LMFAO

we already have proven that you cannot read here: http://phys.org/n...een.html

plus, as an added bonus, it completely refutes your assertions about astrophysicists not knowing plasma physics with this gem: http://arxiv.org/...92v1.pdf

now we see his Dunning-Kruger ignoring the evidence for the pseudoscience that is eu!
all you are is an acolyte
you have faith in a debunked pseudoscience so you lash out at people here knowing full well that you are a failed debunked stupid monk for the con men on your site

that is all you will ever be
learn to read, then learn REAL science
http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm
Uncle Ira
4.4 / 5 (7) Nov 11, 2014
There you go lying again, it's as if you read two or three lines and make the rest up yourself based upon your dementia/Alzheimer's affected brain
@cd
and what we see here is your complete inability to read and comprehend english


Go easy on him Captain-Skippy. They are having a bad week. All those crows he fried going on about the comets are not ice and they are supercharged electric, well I know they taste bad, but he has to eat them anyway.

Oh yeah I almost forget again. Has anybody heard from the Really-Skippy, because I'm getting worried for him. Maybe he is having the mental condition seen to.

And guess you what I did? Bet you can't guess so I'm going to tell you.

I took my license test for the ham radio last week and got my official call sign yesterday. I've had the Marine Operator's for years but just now get around to getting the top Amateur license. Amateur Extra Class me.
OZGuy
5 / 5 (5) Nov 11, 2014
Ira
Real is probably writing off his acceptance speech for the Nobel prize he expects to receive when he publishes his Theory of Everything. I suspect the speech will take longer to read than the mythical ToE. I hope he realises Little Golden Books require colour pictures before he asks them to publish the ToE.
OZGuy
5 / 5 (5) Nov 11, 2014
IRA
Congrats on the licence upgrade.
BTW if you ever visit Australia you're good to operate your station for up to 90 days without any hassles.

http://www.comlaw...08L00376
Uncle Ira
4.3 / 5 (6) Nov 11, 2014
IRA
Congrats on the licence upgrade.
BTW if you ever visit Australia you're good to operate your station for up to 90 days without any hassles.


Thanks for the congratulating OZ-Skippy. No, this was not the upgrade, it is my first amateur license. But I took all three of the elements on the same time so I get the top class that they issue. Here it goes Technician, then General, then Amateur Extra. If you take the Technician and pass it, they ask if you feel up to the General. Ol Ira-Skippy said sure why not. Then when they grade that one, they ask again if I feel up to taking the Amateur Extra and again I said why not I do that now. So I go right to the top right out of the gate.

My other license is the Marine Radio Operators Permit that I got for work years and years ago. That one is just questions about rules and you don't need to know the radio technical stuff.
yep
1 / 5 (2) Nov 13, 2014
Thanks Ira, I think there is more to it. We would have the same atmosphere if our C02 was not bound into calcite. http://www.ajax.e...rth.html
Mars atmosphere is 95% C02 compared to Venus at 96.5% http://planetfact...of-mars/ Mars has 1% of the pressure on that exists on the Earth and Venus has 92x the pressure of earth. We know solar storms have a large effect on our atmosphere. http://www.scienc...95001069 and others http://www.resear...mosphere The Plasmasphere of Venus http://www-ssc.ig...nus_mag/ The proximity to the sun is probably a major factor. You might take notice of the dipole (Birkeland) currents at the poles, we use electrical currents on the earth to create plasmoids to increase well pressure. http://vant.kipt...._333.pdf

sirchick
5 / 5 (2) Nov 14, 2014
Hope theres a live stream of the events unfolding
LOL At mission central maybe. It is a half-hour lightspeed from 67P.

That still makes it live. Live does not mean instant. :)
Anakin
not rated yet Nov 15, 2014
'murica is offside now

Three of the systems on board were developed under NASA auspices (two spectrometers an an ion sensor)


And murica couldn'd afford to send them up so they hitch hiked like a bum.
Neal deGrass Tyson said about the most suprising thing about physics was how murica just given up it's leadership in science and gave CERN as an example.
It is so sad that it's spending on military is 1000 times of what is spent on science.

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