A decade is a long time, but it’s especially long for middle-schoolers. 10 years ago, 6th graders were taking their first steps while 7th and 8th graders started pre-school. We were not the only young ones, though. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta Lander project was also in the beginning stages of its life, and while we grew up, its Ariane 5 rocket plunged on through the cold depths of space. Until now.
Like most things , the Rosetta Lander project experienced setbacks. Its original mission was to launch towards Comet 46P/Wirtanen in January of 2003, making contact sometime in 2011. In 2002, however, a fault was discovered in the rocket that was supposed to propel the lander and its probe through space. The project was delayed, and finally put off until March of the year after its scheduled launch. The possibility of landing on 46P/Wirtanen had been lost, and a new target was finally selected by the ESA: Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Finally, after years of planning Rosetta’s literal space odyssey began at last as it was launched on March 2nd, 2004.
Rosetta’s mission is simple. Almost too simple. And very open ended. The ESA’s webpage states that its aim is to “unlock the secrets hidden within the icy treasure chest for 4.6 billion years. To study [the comet’s] make-up and its history. To search for clues as to our own origins”. In order to accomplish this, the Rosetta Orbiter and Philae Lander are equipped with some incredible technologies. The orbiter’s ALICE Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer is able to analyze the composition of the comet and its tail through spectrography and its radio technologies can produce an idea of what the comet’s nucleus looks like based on how radio waves bounce off of the comet’s insides. Philae can detect the presence of gases and x-rays, take photos and study the comet’s magnetic field. The mission could tell us information about comets that scientists have only dreamed of. If, that is, it can get the power.
On Wednesday, November 12th, 2014, the Rosetta orbiter finally circled its target, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko 6.4 billion miles from earth. At 3:30 AM, the Philae probe detached itself from the Rosetta and flew towards the comet’s surface. Then something went terribly wrong. It’s “landing harpoon” was never fired and Philae took two large bounces before finally settling in the shadows of what scientists now believe is a cliff. This was not good. The solar powered Philae was supposed to receive around 12 hours of sunlight per day, but it’s improvised and shadowy landing have reduced that number to just an hour and a half. Philae’s batteries have already shut down.
There is still hope that Philae might be able to function, albeit at a limited capacity. Scientists have commanded Philae to turn towards the sun as the comet passes by in the hopes that some wayward sunlight might hit the probes solar panels. The gesture seems almost like a tribute to human optimism and perseverance through adversity, the problem-solving spirit that sets homo sapiens apart. Yet the question remains: Will Philae be able to pull through?
The Rosetta Comet Landing Press Kit – http://sci.esa.int/rosetta/54816-press-kit—12-november-2014—landing-on-a-comet/
Photo Courtesy of the European Space Agency – http://www.esa.int/ESA