Cosmic first: European spacecraft lands on comet
Originally Published: November 12, 2014 9:46 a.m.
DARMSTADT, Germany (AP) - The European Space Agency celebrated a cosmic touchdown Wednesday by successfully landing a spacecraft on a comet for the first time in history.The agency said it has received a signal at 1603 GMT (11:03 a.m. EST) from the 100-kilogram (220-pound) Philae lander after it touched down on the icy surface of the comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko."We definitely confirm that the lander is on the surface," said flight director Andrea Accomazzo.While further checks are needed to ascertain the state of the lander, the fact that it is resting on the surface of the speeding comet is already a huge success. It marks the highlight of the decade-long Rosetta mission to study comets and learn more about the origins of these celestial bodies.The head of the European Space Agency underlined Europe's pride in having achieved a unique first ahead of its U.S. counterpart NASA."We are the first to have done that, and that will stay forever," said ESA director-general Jean-Jacques Dordain.The landing caps a 6.4 billion-kilometer (4 billion-mile) journey begun a decade ago.Rosetta, which was launched in 2004, had to slingshot three times around Earth and once around Mars before it could work up enough speed to chase down the comet, which it reached in August. Rosetta and the comet have been traveling in tandem ever since at 41,000 mph (66,000 kph).The mission will also give researchers the opportunity to test the theory that comets brought organic matter and water to Earth billions of years ago, said Klim Churyumov, one of the two astronomers who discovered the comet in 1969.Here are answers to five questions about the space mission:HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT TO LAND ON A COMET?Nothing like Wednesday's landing had ever been attempted before.NASA landed a probe on an asteroid in 2001, but comets are much more volatile destinations because they continually release dust and gas that can harm a spacecraft. Also, because this landing was taking place 311 million miles (500 million kilometers) from the Earth, the Rosetta spacecraft and the Philae lander it carried were both designed to perform the landing autonomously. Once they received the go-ahead, there was nothing scientists at mission control in Darmstadt, Germany could do to adjust the lander's course.Philae's separation from Rosetta also had to be extremely precise. An error of just one inch during separation could have put the lander 250 meters (820 feet) off target on the 4-kilometer (2 ½-mile) wide comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. But Paolo Ferri, head of mission operations for the space agency, said Philae's landing was almost perfectly on target - save for one unplanned bounce.WERE THERE ANY PROBLEMS WITH THE LANDING?Several.First, the lander failed to wake up properly Tuesday. Scientists fixed that with a trick familiar to anyone who has used a computer. They rebooted it.After the separation from Rosetta is became clear that there was a problem with Philae's downward thrusters. They were designed to press the lander onto the surface during the final touchdown, to help it get a grip using harpoons and screws. The thruster failure wouldn't have been so dramatic if the harpoons had fired, but they didn't. So Philae bounced, once, before coming to rest again on the comet.Scientists are also trying to resolve intermittent communication problems with the lander, but those shouldn't interfere too badly with the mission.WHAT DATA ARE SCIENTISTS SEEKING?Scientists have likened the trillion or so comets in our solar system to time capsules that remain virtually unchanged since the earliest moments of the universe. One of the things they are most excited about is the possibility that the mission might help confirm that comets brought the building blocks of life - organic matter and water - to Earth. They already know that comets contain amino acids, a key component of cells. Finding the right kind of amino acids and water would be an important hint that life on Earth did come from space.HOW WILL THE LANDER COLLECT DATA?"The science starts the minute we get down to the ground," said Mark McCaughrean, a senior scientific adviser on the mission. Philae has ten instruments on board - including devices to measure light, electrical magnetism and heat - and flying up above the comet the Rosetta spacecraft has another 11 instruments. The Philae lander will provide plenty of images of a world no human has ever seen close up and will drill below the surface to extract a sample of the comet that will be analyzed onboard.The lander's batteries are expected to last just 64 hours - but that should be enough for scientists to gather a huge wealth of data. In addition, the lander has a solar panel that should provide an hour's worth of battery life per day for up to five months.WHAT CHALLENGES LIE AHEAD?The comet is on a 6 ½-year elliptical orbit around the sun. At the moment it is getting closer to our star. This makes for great science, since Philae and Rosetta will be able to observe the comet becoming more active.As 67P approaches the sun, the amount of matter it sheds will greatly increase, posing a potential risk to the lander and even to the Rosetta spacecraft flying in tandem with the comet. As the comet reaches perihelion, the closest point to the sun, the rising temperatures could also damage Philae. But the lander should remain stuck to the comet forever, even after its systems have shut down. Rosetta will continue to fly alongside the comet until the end of its useful lifetime in about two years. Scientists have suggested that a fitting end would be for it, too, to land on the comet and reunite with the lander once more.Mobile users click here for ESA video illustrating Rosetta mission