HISTORY MADE- PHILAE LANDS ON COMET- Craft fails to anchor to surface- raises concerns

By Ted Bonnitt on November 11th, 2014
HISTORY MADE- PHILAE LANDS ON COMET- Craft fails to anchor to surface- raises concerns
Mission controllers celebrate confirmation of the landing. Credit: ESA
Mission controllers celebrate confirmation of the landing. Credit: ESA

A historic attempt to soft land a spacecraft on a comet hundreds of millions of miles from Earth has succeeded. But there are concerns.

The European Space Agency (ESA) reports that the 220 pound Philae spacecraft has sent confirmation to Earth that it has landed on the 2.5 mile wide 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet.

Mission controllers report that despite a softer than expected landing, the Philae spacecraft has not yet anchored itself to the comet, and its grasp on the comet may be tenuous. More attempts will be made to deploy the anchors.

However, the science has begun with the lander taking pictures of its surroundings. Scientists hope to learn about the origins of our universe during the unique mission. Much of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is comprised of primordial water, which may provide the lander's science onboard laboratory with answers about the origins of water in the universe and life on Earth.

Ten scientific instruments have begun their work with 64 hours worth of power until they are shut down while the craft's solar panels recharge its batteries. Ongoing, the craft will only have enough battery power to run its instruments for an hour every two days between charging cycles.

ESA is leading the $1.6 billion dollar mission with technical and science support from NASA.

Photograph of the Rosetta spacecraft from Philae landing craft as it departs for the comet's surface. Sunlight causes image glare. Credit: ESA

The landing was tricky for a number of reasons.  

The comet is rocky and uneven, but the lander aimed for a smooth area about a third of a square mile in size. The location was chosen as the best of a series of challenging locations identified by the Rosetta craft which photographed potential landing sites from its 4.5 mile high orbit around the comet.

Mission planners are thrilled and relieved by the landing, that caps a mission that began ten years ago.

Rosetta sling-shot around Earth three times to gather enough velocity to catch up to the comet, which is speeding toward the sun at 34,400 miles per hour. The probe and went to sleep for 2 and half years to conserve energy during its journey and woke itself up as it approached its target. It then was able to maneuver into a tight orbit around the comet for closer study. 

Landing on a comet allows scientists to study the composition of the celestial body, which is made up of primordial ingredients of the universe. The findings promise to reveal knowledge about our very beginnings.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is “singing” to space. 

The comet seems to be emitting a purring sound in the form of oscillations in the magnetic field in the comet’s environment. It is being sung at 40-50 millihertz, far below human hearing, which typically picks up sound between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. To make the music audible to the human ear, the frequencies have been increased. Click to listen.

There are live video feeds from mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, on both the ESA and NASA websites.

For more information on the landing site and mission, click here.

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