Jimmy Westlake: First comet landing expected Wednesday
Steamboat Springs — If all goes according to plan, a little space probe named Philae will separate from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft late Tuesday and make the first controlled landing on the surface of a comet Wednesday morning.
It took the Rosetta spacecraft 10 years to chase down and reach Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, or Comet C-G for short. On Aug. 6, it became the first spacecraft in history to orbit a comet nucleus. ESA scientists hope to double-down on Wednesday and make the history books once again with the first-ever comet landing.
Robotic spacecraft have visited several comets over the past few decades, including Halley’s comet, back in 1986, but none of these probes were designed to land on a comet’s surface. Philae has been designed to do just that.
Mission scientists had no idea what Comet C-G looked like until Rosetta closed in on it last August. It turns out that the comet nucleus has two lobes awkwardly attached to each other, looking somewhat like the head and body of a “rubber duckie” bathtub toy.
After carefully scrutinizing the comet’s surface for potential safe landing sites, mission scientists have decided to attempt to land on top of the smaller lobe, the rubber duckie’s head. This will be no easy feat because the comet is spinning rapidly and the landing spot won’t even be in view when Philae separates from Rosetta and begins its seven-hour descent.
The landing sequence has been programmed into the onboard computers and cannot be altered once the descent begins. You can bet that there will be a lot of nail biting and breath holding at mission control during the seven-hour descent phase.
About the size of a kitchen dishwasher, Philae has little thrusters to push it down onto the comet’s surface while claws dig in to help anchor it under the low gravity conditions. Philae will photograph the surface of the comet immediately upon landing and drill into its surface to determine its chemical makeup.
Solar panels will provide the electrical power to run the many onboard instruments for up to three months, but batteries can power the little explorer for 65 hours, if the solar power fails. The first images from the surface of Comet C-G are expected to arrive a little over an hour after touchdown.
Meanwhile, Rosetta will continue to orbit Comet C-G for the next year as the comet zips around the sun and grows its gassy and dusty tails. If all goes well, we will witness first-hand what happens to a comet as its ices are exposed to the solar heat. We will also be able to judge how well Hollywood was able to guess at what the surface of a comet looks like in big screen movies like “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact.”
Comets are relics from the past — the icy leftovers from the formation of the planets 4.6 billion years ago. Some astronomers believe that comets like C-G are responsible for bringing water and organic chemicals to the Earth as it formed in the hot solar nebula billions of years ago.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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