Tech & Science

European Space Probe Safely on Comet's Surface

Philae
A probe named Philae is seen after it landed on a comet, known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA/Handout via Reuters

Update 7:55 am ET: FRANKFURT (Reuters) - A European probe that landed on a comet in a first for space exploration is safely on the surface despite technical problems, pictures beamed half a billion kilometers (300 million miles) back to Earth showed on Thursday.The excitement and expectations of some watching the Rosetta Mission comet landing on Wednesday may come crashing back to Earth after news that the probe’s harpoons failed to deploy, leaving it at risk of drifting back into space.

***

The probe, named “Philae,” landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Wednesday at around 11 a.m. EST, making history as the “first controlled touchdown on a comet nucleus,” according to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) website. Shortly afterward, the mission’s leaders told reporters that the probe’s harpoons had failed to deploy and it was at risk of drifting back into space, Reuters reported.

“The lander may have lifted off again,” Reuters quotes Stefan Ulamec, Philae lander manager at the DLR German Aerospace Center. “Maybe today we just didn’t land once but landed twice. Hopefully we are sitting there on the surface…and can continue our science sequence.”

ESA project scientist Matt Taylor tells Newsweek the team believes Philae rebounded some time after it initially touched down, based on data about its rotation, but that it may have then returned to the surface of the comet. Because of the current position of Rosetta, the orbiter, it cannot link to Philae to transmit additional information, which would be the case regardless of the lander’s status.

“Once we get the orbiter back above the horizon [of the comet],” says Taylor, it will be able to “pick [the lander’s] signal back up again,” or so they hope. Any data being sent from Rosetta take roughly half an hour to reach Earth, Taylor adds.

Though Taylor tells Newsweek he’s not certain when precisely the first additional data will come in, the mission tweeted that they would provide a status update on Philae Thursday at 8 a.m. EST once they “had time to analye the data.”

Initially, a signal from Philae that confirmed successful touchdown at 11:03 a.m. EST was transmitted to ESA and NASA stations in Argentina and Madrid, respectively, and confirmed in Germany by ESA’s Space Operations Center and the German Aerospace Center’s Lander Control Center.

Scientists shown in a live broadcast waiting for the signal Wednesday exuded tension and excitement as an event 10 years in the making—Rosetta was launched on March 2, 2004—came to pass. The probe took seven hours to descend to the surface after detaching from the orbiter, which has been following the comet since August.

“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,” Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s director general, is quoted as saying in a post-touchdown article on the ESA website. “With Rosetta we are opening a door to the origin of planet Earth and fostering a better understanding of our future. ESA and its Rosetta mission partners have achieved something extraordinary today.”

The name of Philae’s landing site, Agilkia, was chosen based on a public contest online in October of this year. The ESA received received more than 8,000 entries from 135 countries in one over the course of the one-week competition. The spot was ultimately named after an island in Egypt’s Nile River, a suggestion submitted by more than 150 people. The reference echoes that embedded in the name of the mission, which harkens back to the Rosetta stone, a slab of rock covered in hieroglyphs. The stone, discovered in 1799, helped shed light on ancient Egyptian civilization and culture.

“Just as the Rosetta Stone provided the key to an ancient civilisation,” reads an explanation on the ESA’s website, “so ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft will unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our solar system—the comets.”

Following the landing, John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, issued a statement, which read in part:

We congratulate ESA on their successful landing on a comet today. This achievement represents a breakthrough moment in the exploration of our solar system and a milestone for international cooperation. We are proud to be a part of this historic day and look forward to receiving valuable data from the three NASA instruments on board Rosetta that will map the comet’s nucleus and examine it for signs of water.

NASA would not comment on the probe’s failure to anchor down, saying that because Rosetta is spearheaded by the ESA , it cannot speak about details of the mission’s status.

The probe is supposed to collect data from the comet during its primary science mission over the next two and a half days. According to the ESA, the primary science mission will include:

A full panoramic view of the landing site, including a section in 3D, high-resolution images of the surface immediately underneath the lander, on-the-spot analysis of the composition of the comet’s surface materials, and a drill that will take samples from a depth of 23 cm and feed them to an onboard laboratory for analysis.

The lander will also measure the electrical and mechanical characteristics of the surface. In addition, low-frequency radio signals will be beamed between Philae and the orbiter through the nucleus to probe the internal structure.

The detailed surface measurements that Philae makes at its landing site will complement and calibrate the extensive remote observations made by the orbiter covering the whole comet.

The data Philae collects could help scientists understand the formation of the solar system and the beginnings of life on Earth.

“Comets are bits of rock and ice left over from the creation of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. They are literally bits of the past that have been frozen in time. So understanding what they are made of is important,” Sadie Jones of the University of Southampton in a Q&A released by the university. “There are also some scientific theories that comets may have played a part seeding the Earth with water and the other basic ingredients for life and all the science data from this mission will help to understand these theories.”

Previous research on comets has shown has found complex organic molecules rich in carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, according to the ESA, which are the building blocks of nucleic acids and amino acids, “the essential ingredients for life as we know it.”

Philae has already captured its first images from the surface of the comet, which will become available within hours. Even before Wednesday’s landing, however, the Rosetta mission began documenting the comet from close up.

11-12-14 Rosetta 1 Rosetta mission poster showing the deployment of the Philae lander to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The image of the comet was taken with the navigation camera on Rosetta. ESA/Rosetta/NavCam

11-12-14 Rosetta 3 Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera captured this parting shot of the Philae lander after separation. ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

11-12-14 Rosetta 4 Rosetta’s lander Philae took this parting shot of its mothership shortly after separation. ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

11-12-14 Rosetta 2 The image shows comet 67P/CG acquired by the ROLIS instrument on the Philae lander during descent on Nov 12, 2014 14:38:41 UT from a distance of approximately 3 km from the surface. The landing site is imaged with a resolution of about 3m per pixel. ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR

The landing captured the attention of viewers far and wide, some of whom took to Twitter to share their reactions.

“Decades of preparation have paved the way for today’s success, ensuring that Rosetta continues to be a game-changer in cometary science and space exploration,” Alvaro Giménez, director of science and robotic exploration for ESA, is quoted as saying on the agency’s website. “After more than 10 years traveling through space, we’re now making the best ever scientific analysis of one of the oldest remnants of our solar system.”

 
Editor's Pick