People can land spacecraft on comets. That is a thing we can do now, thanks to the European Space Agency’s Philae lander.
I know you’re thinking hey, we’ve probed us some comets in the past, remember that Deep Impact thing back in 2005? Well, yes. But what we really meant by probed was crashed a spacecraft into the comet, creating this spectacular explosion.
This time around, the ESA controlled the landing of their craft, using thrusters, harpoons, and whatever else they could think of to stabilize Philae during its descent.
That’s not to say everything went swimmingly for the little craft. Philae, and its mothership Rosetta, first had to complete a decade long journey, which included slingshotting itself into deep space using the gravity of both Mars and the Earth. Then the ship was put into a three year long slumber as it crossed deep space towards its chosen destination – the singing comet, also known as Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Waking up from that slumber was another tense moment – would the ship respond? Well, it did. And it took off to catch its coment. Upon reaching Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, it spent 98 days in orbit (another thing we hadn’t done before) as scientists figured out the best landing sites for the oddly shaped craft. And then, finally, separation: Rosetta jettisoned Philae and for 7 hours the ground crew fretted over its fate.
And why wouldn’t they? Take a look at the surface of the comet Philae had to negotiate:
Not to mention the moment ground control figured out their active descent system had failed. This is important because the thruster would stop the little lander from bouncing back off the comet’s surface. But, there was no turning back. Time for Plan B – harpoons dragging Philae back down to the surface long enough for the foot screws to engage.
And Plan B worked, ish. Reports are coming in that the harpoons also didn’t work. But, WHATEVER! Philae landed safely on the comet’s surface. The soft landing allows 11 delicate scientific instruments to be deployed. The mission isn’t just to land the thing, we also want to know some real stuff about comets. The ESA is hoping that the mission will help to explain the origins of the solar system. Big questions to ask of the little lander.
Find out more about this historic first at the ESA’s Rosetta Mission Page.