As the United States and India eye their new satellites around Mars, the European Space Agency (ESA) is looking in the direction of a comet, and it's been looking at that comet for the last ten years.
The ESA has announced that it will release its Rosetta mission lander, Philae, on November 12 so that it can land on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. If it is successful, it will be the first man-made craft to land on a moving comet.
The ESA has dubbed the chosen landing site for Philae "Site J." The spacecraft has journeyed towards the comet ever since it was launched 10 years ago in 2004. Trying to land on the incredibly fast-moving comet will be very tricky. It will be like trying to land a mosquito on a moving bullet... all via remote control. Oh, and add the issue that any correction signal sent from Earth to Philae will take 28 minutes and 20 seconds to reach it, (according to BBC News). Any small mishap could cause the mission to fail, scrapping 10 years of work.
The timeline set for Philae to correctly land on the comet is very precise. On Wednesday, November 12, the Rosetta satellite, which is currently in orbit around the ice rock, will drop a small robot called Philae from a height of 20 kilometers. If nothing goes wrong, the lander will fall to the comet and touchdown at approximately 15:35 GMT. Put in those terms, the challenges don't sound that difficult, but they are. Imagine being in an airplane at 65 thousand feet above the Earth and dropping a washing machine out of the back. Now hope that the washing machine hits a target the size of the Indy 500 Motor Speedway... all while the Earth is moving erratically. Though that analogy isn't perfect, it does give you an idea of how difficult the landing will be.
Though the lander is scheduled to touch down on the comet at 15:35 GMT, since it takes so long for communications to travel between the comet and the Earth, scientists won't know if the mission was a success until shortly after 14:00 GMT on November 12.
Rosetta carries sensors that can "hear" the comet by sending out sound waves and measuring how they are reflected. The craft is carrying radio tools that can help the scientists visualize the interior of the comet, and a spectrometer to tell the ESA what the chemical makeup of the surface is like according to Tech Times.
The world will hold its breath and cross its fingers in hopes that the ESA's Philae lander will succeed in its mission.
[Image via University Herald]