Dreams are the start of everything. But realizing one requires hard work, determination and occasionally some hard cash. Here’s an audacious dream: Let’s send a spaceship to orbit a comet and land a robotic photographer-chemist-geologist on its surface.
In just 10 days, on November 12th at 2:35 in the morning (CST), the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft will dispatch Philae to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimemnko. The washing machine-sized lander will drop from a height of 14 miles (22.5 km) and land at “Site J” on the dusty surface of the smaller of the comet’s twin heads.
Meanwhile, Rosetta will be positioned to watch the landing. Looking at the detailed landing site photos reminds us this won’t be easy. While there are relatively smooth areas, boulders are everywhere! You might think that the dust layer is deep on the comet, and that might be true in places. Is there risk that the 220-pound (100 kg) Philae could sink into the dust? Probably not if only because the probe will weigh about as much as a dollar bill in the comet’s extraordinarily low gravity field.
Simulation of Philae landing and working on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko
That’s exactly why ESA’s outfitting its lander with ice screws and a tool normally used in the whaling industry. Once alighting on the surface, ice screws under each of Philae’s three footpads will attempt to drill into the crust to secure it from floating away. A built-in thruster will then push the lander to the ground as a harpoon connected to a tether is fired beneath the lander to further anchor it.
A dozen instruments with delightful names like CONSERT (will use radio waves to probe the nucleus of the comet), CIVA (panorama and microscopic imaging), Ptolemy (comet gas analyzer) and MUPUS (measure material properties and temperatures at the surface and near-surface) will get to work to build as complete a picture as possible of this 2.5 x 2.8 mile double-headed icy relic of the solar system. For additional information on Philae’s bag of tricks, click HERE.
We’ll have more in the days leading up to the landing and post the first panoramic photos as soon as they’re available.