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


Rosetta Mission

In March 2004, the European Space Agency launched Rosetta – the mission, to reach Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by August 2014, deploying a probe (dubbed Philae after an obelisk discovered on an island in the Nile leading to further unraveling of Egyptian writing and the Rosetta Stone) , one destined as the first to  land on a comet surface.

Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko travels around the Sun at approximately 800 million kilometers, on an orbit between Earth and Jupiter. For Rosetta to make the journey, “gravity assists” (momentum from flybys of Mars in 2007, and Earth in 2005, 2007 and 2009) explain the 10 years and over 6 billion kilometers Rosetta travels before reaching her destination.

Recently woken from a 31 month slumber, Rosetta sent extraordinary pictures on July 14 indicating the comet might be a binary system (one with two nucleus orbiting each other). On July 24, more pictures will be released following a “FAT burn” (far approach trajectory) adjustment to slow Rosetta down. “CAT burns” (close approach trajectory) on August 3 and 6 will place Rosetta 100 kilometers from the comet surface, traveling in polite unison. Months of August and September bring another “burn” taking Rosetta within 70 kilometers of the surface. October will find Rosetta within 5 kilometers of the surface, looking for a place to land Philae.

Possibly a few days one way or the other, November 11, 2014 Philae will separate from Rosetta, land on the comet surface, deploying anchors to keep it in place. For the next 7 days, a few more if we’re lucky, Philae will sample gases, water, ice, mineral composition – all while taking close up and panoramic pictures of the surface.

Ponder a unmanned space probe using gravitational support and a whole lot of ingenuity to journey 6 billion kilometers in 10 years – all for the prize of a week or so on the surface of a distant comet. If that doesn’t blow your mind, or at very least pass a “holy crap” through your head – I give up.