Friday, November 14, 2014

Probe lands on comet

Time now again for Science Friday.

It's not often that developments in space make banner headlines in mainstream news. Well it sure happened this time.

A voyage of billions of miles paid off as the ESA's Rosetta space probe landed its Philae module on the nucleus of Comet 67P. You can see a (very) brief video simulation of the landing in the clip above.  The landing was a bit of a shaky operation there for a time as Philae's harpoon anchors failed to fire and the lander bounced on the surface of the comet but things seem stable for now...or at least until the battery runs out. Telemetry suggests that Philae is at rest perhaps a full kilometer from its intended landing site and is on the slope of a crater or perhaps even tipped over on its side. As mentioned regarding the battery, this may create problems in terms of enough light getting to the solar panels for a recharge. But for now the little guy is still doing its job.

Philae has already begun to send back measurement's of 67P's surface as well as photographs from the landing site. There is a problem with the lighting that is vexing many at the ESA but that may indeed be due to the angle and attitude of the lander. One idea being tossed around is using one of the probe's movable parts to cause Philae to sort of "hop" back into an upright position. This may be necessary in order to activate the probe's drill.

After all, that was one of the whole reasons to send the Rosetta mission to a comet. Philae was intended to drill into the rock of the comet and scoop material into its onboard labs for analysis. It has been oft theorized that comets brought many of the elements necessary for life to Earth. Scanning the substance of one directly will help make determinations on the theory of "panspermia."

Not crib the BBC article too much, but Rosetta and Philae already have a place assured in history. The technical achievement of humans landing a device on a comet is a triumph in and of itself and Rosetta continues to send data back that will help us learn more and more about comets and their role in the formation of the solar system and in overall cosmology.

Just one of the unique finds so far has been a "song" coming from the comet. Plasma sensors on Rosetta found that there are fluctuations in the comet's weak magnetic field causing oscillations at low frequencies. The preliminary thought is that this is due to gases venting into space from the comet's core. These jets contain neutral particles that are then ionized by high-energy particles in space and thus the sound fluctuations. You can hear this "song" slowed down for the human ear here.

While it's important to get as much information as possible about the comet and I certainly don't wish to slubber through the process, I find myself coming back to the technical aspects. We now have the capability to land a remotely operated spacecraft on a comet from billions of miles away. What we've learned from such a feat can then be applied to future missions to stellar bodies such as asteroids. So sounds like the plans to mine asteroids aren't so far fetched after all. In actuality, we've already learned quite a bit from Rosetta and Philae.

Not mention the fact that the pictures sent back prior to the landing are damn pretty.

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