Rosetta’s Life Ends September 30, 2016

As I write, mission control at ESA (European Space Agency) dutifully prepare Rosetta for her assisted suicide. In less than 6 hours (twenty minutes either side of 7:20 am ET to be precise), Rosetta enters controlled descent into the pits of Deir el-Medina on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

“The target area is home to several active pits measuring over 100 meters across and 60 meters deep [about 100 yards wide and 60 yards deep], from which a number of the comet’s dust jets originate. Some of the pit walls also exhibit intriguing meter-sized lumpy structures called ‘goosebumps’, which could be the signatures of early cometesimals [i.e, the building blocks of comets] that agglomerated to create the comet in the early phases of solar system formation. Rosetta’s final descent may afford detailed close-up views of these features.” – ESA

NASA television (first link below) is airing Rosetta’s descent live.

Another NASA link below, offers additional live viewing options and links to dedicated mission details –

Rosetta will crash into the Ma’at region of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The yellow ellipse marks an approximate outline of the 700- × 500-meter (700- x 500-yard) target area. Image via ESA.

Artist's concept of Rosetta

Artist’s concept of Rosetta shortly before hitting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Sept. 30, 2016. Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab
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RIP Philae

Star of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission, lander Philae faced Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko with stoic determination. November 12, 2014 dawned with realization of Rosetta’s 10 year, 6 billion kilometer journey to travel in unison with 67P. A day defined by Rosetta’s singular purpose – deploy lander Philae to the surface of comet 67P. Oh Philae, how could you anticipate a faulty thruster, or fathom a legacy defined by malfunctioning harpoons?

Undaunted by cataclysmic failure of comet securing tethers, Philae capped seven hold your breath hours of descent with a kilometer high bounce. Stay the course determination erupted from the tenacious little lander. Rosetta Mission ordered a landing, Philae gave them one.

A kilometer off course, hopelessly sheltered from energizing solar panel sunlight, Philae faced mortality with honor and purpose. Born 510 million kilometers from Earth, Philae lived 64 hours. From deployment to failure of primary batteries, Philae managed to complete 80% of mission objectives. Detailed surface images, samples of organic compounds, environment and surface properties of Comet 67P.

The evening of November 14-15, 2014 Philae drifted into deep sleep. Not ready to forsake the feisty lander, optimism waited for perihelion (closest orbit of 67P to the Sun ) on August 13, 2015. Approaching perihelion, between June 13-July 9, 2015 Philae made 7 valiant attempts to transmit data.

Silent since July 2015, coupled with uncertainty of Philae’s location in light of dynamic changes in 67P’s surface, and consensus solar panels are likely covered in space dust – led to signing Philae death certificate on February 12, 2016, announcing no further attempts to contact Philae.

Rosetta’s little lander that could is gone, but not forgotten. RIP Philae, you served humanity beyond wildest expectation.

This series of images of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was captured by Rosetta's OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 12 August 2015, just a few hours before the comet reached the closest point to the Sun along its 6.5-year orbit, or perihelion. The images were taken from a distance of about 330 km from the comet. The comet's activity, at its peak intensity around perihelion and in the weeks that follow, is clearly visible in these spectacular images. Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Philae's bounce across the surface of its comet, as captured by the Rosetta mothership. Image via ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Philae’s bounce across the surface of its comet, as captured by the Rosetta mothership. Image via ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Philae Silent

The European Space Agency Rosetta mission will continue until December 2015 – as of now, the point at which project funds run dry. Rosetta became the darling of space endeavors with the “sort of” successful landing of Rosetta’s probe Philae on the surface of comet 67P. “Sort of” because yes, Philae found a historic resting place on 67P – unfortunately not without a few hiccups.

It was easy and understandable to overlook those hiccups in the heat of the moment.  Philae “bounced” on the first attempt (almost a kilometer off the surface), before falling and bouncing again. The landing was successful, if all that mattered was a landing. I walked around with a goofy grin, oblivious to the unfortunate location Philae came to rest. It reminded me of early Apollo missions – headline news, something everyone talked about.

If all had gone according to plan, Philae would have deployed anchors on that first “touchdown”, consequently transmitting data until March 2015. Sobering reality had a different plan – Philae came to rest in a “shadow”, a place with little concern for solar panels.

Philae’s unfortunate bounce meant a meager 57 hours of usefulness before falling completely and utterly silent. Damn batteries.

Philae may be down, but Rosetta isn’t out – Rosetta will travel in tandem with the orbit of 67P, observing what happens as it reaches perihelion (closest orbit to the sun) in August 2015. Important observations will detail the effect of heating the nucleus, followed by cooling as it travels away from the sun until the end of 2015.

A 10 year mission for 57 hours of data might seem like a bust – not even close! The Rosetta mission is testament to everything that defines mankind. The ability to dream, question, and follow through with voyages of discovery no matter how fantastic or unpredictable the outcome might be.

“From now on, no contact would be possible unless sufficient sunlight falls on the solar panels to generate enough power to wake it up …

However, given the low recharge current available from the solar cells, it is considered unlikely that contact with Philae will be established in the coming days.”This animated GIF shows the Philae comet lander's first touchdown point, as seen by the Rosetta mothership's NavCam.  After touching down the first time, the lander bounced nearly a kilometer back to space, before touching down again two more times on its comet.  Image via ESA

This animated GIF shows the Philae comet lander’s first touchdown point, as seen by the Rosetta mothership’s NavCam. After touching down the first time, the lander bounced nearly a kilometer back to space, before touching down again two more times on its comet. Image via ESA


Ridiculously Difficult

Difficult tasks are daunting – ridiculously difficult is a proposition best left to imagination. Ridiculous is defined as unreasonably absurd or silly notions deserving ridicule – a preposterous suggestion easily dismissed as ludicrous. Fortunately mankind came with an infinite capacity to imagine ridiculously difficult possibilities.

On November 12, the European Space Agency Rosetta Mission will attempt “ridiculously difficult”- how hard could it be to land a probe on the surface of a miniscule chunk of cosmic debris traveling 40 times faster than speeding bullets?

Difficult was born 10 years ago when the ESA imagined ridiculous and launched Rosetta. A robotic probe with ridiculously difficult expectations – meander through the cosmos for 10 years, alternately slingshotting of planetary gravitational pulls, “sleeping”, waking up to take pictures, and finally slowing itself down to mirror the orbit and speed of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. – a infinitesimally minute cosmic speck only a few miles wide.  That in itself was difficult – ridiculous is the morning of Nov. 12 when Rosetta will deploy Philae, a probe expected to land on the surface of  67P at a spot dubbed Agilkia.

Ridiculously difficult might well define humanity. Where or what would we be without the tenacity and vision of absurdly silly dreamers. On November 12, link to the live feed below – witness the possibilities of pursuing ridiculously difficult.

Pictured below – Philae’s primary landing site, mosaic – courtesy ESA

Philae’s primary landing site – mosaic. Image credit: ESA