Spacecraft landed on a comet 310 million miles from Earth

An unmanned scientific spacecraft that landed on a comet 310 million miles from Earth one month ago made a ten year journey funded by the European Space Agency, an international group overseeing the probe of a comet designated 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

This mosaic is comprised of four images taken with Rosetta’s NAVCAM on December 2 from a distance of 18.7 miles from the center of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  (Photo credit: European Space Agency – ESA)

This mosaic is comprised of four images taken with Rosetta’s NAVCAM on December 2 from a distance of 18.7 miles from the center of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Photo credit: European Space Agency – ESA)

On November 12, 2014, the robotic lander Philae that accompanied the Rosetta spacecraft achieved the first-ever soft landing on a comet nucleus.The first data from the lander’s instruments were transmitted to the Philae Science, Operations and Navigation Center at France’s CNES space agency in Toulouse.

The landing module’s mission was to successfully reach the surface of a comet, attach itself, and transmit data about the comet’s composition. An Ariane 5G+ rocket carrying the Rosetta spacecraft and Philae lander launched from French Guiana on March 2, 2004, and traveled for 3,907 days (10.7 years) to the comet.

A consortium of researchers funded by 20 nations spent almost two decades building the probe and maneuvering it 4 billion miles to the side of a comet headed toward the Sun.

Unlike the Deep Impact probe, which by design struck comet Tempel 1’s nucleus on 4 July 2005, Philae made a soft landing on the comet surface.

Some of the instruments on the lander were used for the first time as autonomous systems during the Mars flyby on February 25, 2007. CIVA, one of the camera systems, returned some images while a magnetometer and plasma sensor, took measurements of the Martian magnetosphere.

Most of the other instruments need contact with the surface for analysis and stayed offline during the flyby. An optimistic estimate of mission length following touchdown was “four to five months.”

The primary battery was designed to power the instruments for about 60 hours limited sunlight  at the landing site is inadequate. to support solar panels attached to a secondary rechargeable battery. Contact was lost on November 15.

Project manager Stephan Ulmanec said a few days of sunlight on the solar panels is all it would take to resume collecting data and it is possible that when the comet has moved much closer to the Sun in its orbit, the lander’s solar panels will receive enough solar energy for ESA to reawaken it around August 2015.

“Our ambitious Rosetta mission has secured another 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 probe to a comet’s surface.”

After more than 10 years travelling through space, we’re now making the best ever scientific analysis of one of the oldest remnants of our Solar System,” says Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

“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.”

“Rosetta is trying to answer the very big questions about the history of our Solar System. What were the conditions like at its infancy and how did it evolve? What role did comets play in this evolution? How do comets work?” said Matt Taylor, ESA Rosetta project scientist.

“Today’s successful landing is undoubtedly the cherry on the icing of a 4 km-wide cake,” said Taylor on the day of the landing, “but we’re also looking further ahead and onto the next stage of this ground-breaking mission, as we continue to follow the comet around the Sun for 13 months, watching as its activity changes and its surface evolves.”

While Philae begins its close-up study of the comet, Rosetta must maneuver from its post-separation path back into an orbit around the comet, eventually returning to a 20 km orbit.

Next year, as the comet grows more active, Rosetta will need to step further back and fly unbound ‘orbits’, but dipping in briefly with daring flybys, some of which will bring it within just 8 km of the comet center.

The comet will reach its closest distance to the Sun on August 13, 2015 at about 115 million miles, roughly between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Rosetta will follow it throughout the remainder of 2015, as they head away from the Sun and activity begins to subside.

“It’s been an extremely long and hard journey to reach today’s once-in-a-lifetime event, but it was absolutely worthwhile. We look forward to the continued success of the great scientific endeavor that is the Rosetta mission as it promises to revolutionize our understanding of comets,” says Fred Jansen, ESA Rosetta mission manager.


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