Last week for the first time, a spacecraft has landed on the surface of a comet. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta satellite traveled billions of miles to deliver the little Philae probe onto comet 67P to discover facts about comets.
Good research paper topics for your next term paper could be to research the progress humanity has made to examine comets and asteroids and learn more about how our solar system was formed.
Rosetta brings Philae to comet 67P
On November 12, 2014, the European Space Agency (ESA), based in the Netherlands, landed the Philae, a small science probe, onto the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P). Philae rode with the Rosetta satellite, which traveled to the comet and delivered the probe.
Rosetta collects data from the comet’s orbit, while Philae landed on the comet’s surface to examine its composition.
Statistics: Rosetta traveled for ten years and four billion miles to catch up with the comet. The mission had a 75 percent chance of success. Comet 67P, shaped like a rubber duck toy, is 4.6 billion years old, about the same age as the solar system. The Philae lander is the size of a washing machine. Philae carries ten instruments to examine the comet. Rosetta will continue to follow the comet and gather data until December 2015.
Spacecraft from Earth have visited comets before, taken pictures, made measurements and even crashed into comets so scientists could observe and identify debris from the impact. But this is the first time that a craft has landed onto a comet intact to examine the surface.
Professor Mark McCaughrean, ESA’s senior scientific advisor, told Jonathan Amos, in the article “Philae comet lander sends more data before losing power,” posted November 15, 2014, on BBC.com, that the agency was “hugely happy.” “All of the science instruments on board have done all the work they were supposed to do, so we have huge amounts of data back on the ground now, which is really exciting,” McCaughrean said.
Philae has many tasks. The most important part of the mission is to examine the make-up of comets, and to verify whether comets could have supplied all the water on Earth and the organic material that allowed life to develop. The little spacecraft also took pictures of the comet on approach and after it landed. It drilled into the comet and scooped up material so onboard scientific equipment could examine the comet’s surface layers. An instrument called Consert sent radio waves through the comet to see its internal structure.
Dr. Matt Taylor, project scientist for European Space Agency, explained other tasks, including “what the surface is like because we are down there, we’re touching it. We are getting datas [sic] from the spectrometers—the things that sniff the gas—near the surface. We are getting those measurements and similar ones from the orbiter. We also have magnetic field measurements that were carried out on the descent,” said Taylor in “Rosetta Rock Star,” by Nick Curtis posted in London Evening Standard, November 13, 2014.
Trouble on the comet
The mission was almost scrapped when Philae did not land precisely as planned. As it was approaching the surface of the comet, it was supposed to eject anchors that would secure it to the comet; then the lander would glide to the surface. Instead, the anchors malfunctioned, causing the lander to bounce off the surface twice. Nevertheless, the lander eventually came to a stop in its proper position on the comet.
Philae lander manager Stephan Ulamec of DLR German Aerospace Agency, who tracked the comet landing from ESA’s Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany, said in “Philae Comet Lander Falls Silent as Batteries Run Out,” by Tariq Malik posted on Scientific American, November 15, 2014: “Despite the unplanned series of three touchdowns, all of our instruments could be operated and now it’s time to see what we’ve got.”
In another situation that has scientists sweating, Philae landed under a cliff. Its battery lost power and needs the comet to rotate into a position where it receives sunlight so its solar panels can recharge the battery.
For more information on comets, check out Questia’s astronomy library.
What other celestial bodies should scientists examine besides comets?