The Philae Lander has made history, and did it in an epic fashion. The Rosetta spacecraft, operated by the European Space Agency, was launched a decade ago. It has traveled over 4 billion miles to rendezvous with the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet, known as 67P. Like something written by a Hollywood hotshot, the spacecraft had to slingshot three times around Earth and once around Mars to garner the speed needed to catch up to the ancient rock hurtling through the solar system. The Rosetta caught it in August and has been running with it, at 41,000 miles per hour, ever since. On Thursday, the Philae Lander, weighing in at around 220 pounds and about half the size of a refrigerator, detached from the spacecraft and started its uncertain descent toward the comet.
Shortly before the lander was due to detach and start its downward journey to actually land on the comet, mission control in Darmstadt, Germany announced a malfunction in the thrust reversers, a large part of the landing system designed to keep the lander from bouncing. This was only the latest of complications to complicate the project of actually landing on the comet. Prior to getting an actual visual on the comet, ESA personnel had assumed it to be an oblong-shaped projectile. In July, when it came into view of the Rosetta, it was found to be shaped more like a rubber duck and to have a horrifically inhospitable surface for landing. Full of craters and boulders and cliffs, a landing spot had to be very carefully chosen, programmed, and uploaded. Real time commands would be impossible, as the distance made communications lag by nearly a half of an hour, even at light speed.
The technical staff had the odds of a successful landing fluctuating around 50 percent. Despite all the known technical difficulties, they decided on a go for launch. The walking speed descent from Rosetta to comet 67P was expected to take seven long hours, incommunicado. Eerily similar to the movie Armageddon, the landing wasn’t perfect. At touch down, the craft’s harpoons to anchor it to the surface failed to deploy. It bounced. It rose about 2/3 of a mile above the surface of the comet and was in the air about two hours. Upon re-landing, it bounced again. This time, a much shorter trip. Several minutes in the air, and the lander was down. Safe. Functional. History had been made. Stephan Ulamec, the Philae’s landing manager, was exuberant.
“We know how we landed, but we don’t know where. We landed three times.”
Its landing spot is far from ideal. Originally, the spot picked would have provided the lander with six or seven hours of sunlight daily. The lander has only about 60 hours of battery life before it has to rely on solar recharging. It won’t be able to do much work with limited power, but best case scenario has the lander collecting and sending date through March of 2015 when the comet’s orbit takes it too close to the sun and the temperature renders its systems inoperable.
This mission has a price tag of around $1.5 billion. Scientists and researchers hope to find clues to the origins of the solar system and the planet Earth. It’s speculated that some of these comets predate the birth of the solar system and may have brought organic matter necessary for life to our own planet. Regardless of what is found, this was a spectacular feat.