Ten years after its launch, European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft Rosetta has picked the site on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko it will attempt to land. The plan is that on November 11 Philae, the spacecrafts lander, will be deployed onto the surface of the comet that is speeding towards an orbit around the sun.
Rosetta was launched by the ESA in 2004 with the intent of attempting the first ever landing on a comet. The 10 year journey for the spacecraft is anticipated to reach its destination by coming to a safe landing on the object hurtling through space. In order to not crash into the surface, Philae will descend from Rosetta at approximately two miles per hour. To attempt to avoid the possibility of bouncing off of the comet, a harpoon and cable system will be launched into the surface for the lander to safely touchdown, in theory.
Once on the surface of the comet, Philae will start to investigate what 67P is made up of. Initial testing will determine if the four and a half billion year old comet is made up of rock or ice, or a combination of the two. However, the testing will dive much deeper than the basic make up of the comet. Philae will look down to the isotopic level.
After the formation of the solar system, comets are leftovers, according to Sky and Telescope magazine editor Kelly Beatty. With the comet being untouched since the formation of the solar system, a vast amount of information may be locked inside the comet, important information.
The mission will only just be getting started after touchdown on the surface of the comet. As 67P nears the Sun during the orbit, the increase in heat will cause some chunks of the comet to fly off as it awakens, potentially allowing Philae to document the event. This will give scientists data on the possible origins of 67P, other comets and the solar system.
After Philae separates from Rosetta and comes to rest on the newly picked out landing site, the initial phase of testing will begin. Temperatures of the surface and below the surface of 67P. At the same time, magnetic and plasma environment will be analyzed, along with a number of other scientific tests. Philae will be drilling to collect samples from below the surface and then using an onboard lab to analyze on site.
The length of time the lander will be able to conduct its testing is unknown. Scientists would be thrilled with the data collected over just a couple of days on the comet, however, the hope is the lander will be able to collect samples and data for weeks. A secure landing and no catastrophic failures could result in Philae collecting data until March, when it is believed that the heat from the Sun will likely cause the lander to stop working.
Now that a landing site has been picked out, Rosetta will finalize the approach to best send Philae to the surface of 67P. After a decade of positioning itself to rendezvous with the comet, it is just under two months until the spacecraft will have a chance to make history, by allowing scientists back on earth virtually touch, taste, smell and hear what is happening on the comet.
By Carl Auer