Europeans land spacecraft on comet, in historic first

The European Space Agency today landed an unmanned spacecraft on a comet. (Actually, they landed a “lander” named Philae, that was carried to the comet by a spacecraft named Rosetta.)

The mission is intended to explore the origins of our solar system, and specifically earth.

Comets aren’t terribly large — they can range from several hundred feet across to several miles. The comet in question, with the inauspicious name “67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko,” is 3 kilometers by 5 kilometers, or around 2 miles by 3 miles.

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At their core, comets are made of an “amalgamation of rock, dust, water ice, and frozen gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, and ammonia.”

Note that ice made from water is includeded in the list. Scientests long believed that the water in earth’s oceans came from comets. Though, recently, a number of studies are discounting that theory.

The Philae lander on its way to land on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Photo by ESA)

The Philae lander on its way to land on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Photo by ESA)

Here’s more from ESA about the mission:

Image from comet lander right before it landed on the comet.

Image from comet lander right before it landed on the comet.

Rosetta’s prime objective is to help understand the origin and evolution of the Solar System. The comet’s composition reflects the composition of the pre-solar nebula out of which the Sun and the planets of the Solar System formed, more than 4.6 billion years ago. Therefore, an in-depth analysis of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by Rosetta and its lander will provide essential information to understand how the Solar System formed.

There is convincing evidence that comets played a key role in the evolution of the planets, because cometary impacts are known to have been much more common in the early Solar System than today. Comets, for example, probably brought much of the water in today’s oceans. They could even have provided the complex organic molecules that may have played a crucial role in the evolution of life on Earth.

ESA also explains the various “firsts” that Rosetta will accomplish:

Rosetta will be undertaking several ‘firsts’ in space exploration. It will be the first mission to orbit and land on a comet. That makes Rosetta one of the most complex and ambitious missions ever undertaken. Scientists had to plan in advance, in the greatest possible detail, a ten year trip through the Solar System. Approaching, orbiting, and landing on a comet require delicate and spectacular manoeuvres. The comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, is a relatively small object, about 4 kilometres in diameter, moving at a speed as great as 135,000 kilometres per hour. We know very little about its actual surface properties – only when we get there will we be able to explore the surface in such detail that we can choose a safe landing scenario. Rosetta is very special because of the unique science it will perform. No other previous mission has had Rosetta’s potential to look back to the infant Solar System and investigate the role comets may have played in the beginnings of life on Earth.

Rosetta will be the first spacecraft to witness, at close proximity, how a comet changes as it approaches the increasing intensity of the Sun’s radiation. The comet develops the so-called ‘coma’ (essentially the comet’s atmosphere) and the two characteristic ion and dust tails. Rosetta’s lander will obtain the first images from a comet’s surface and make the first in-situ subsurface analysis of its composition.

It will also be the first mission to investigate a comet’s nucleus and environment over an extended period of time.



I’m jealous as hell when I read and watch this kind of stuff. I’d always wanted to be a scientist, but the Honors Biology program at the University of Illinois rather amazingly bored me to death (the first time I’d ever found science boring, and even distasteful, in my life), and thus led me to other careers. (I still love it, though. In another life, I’d be an archaeologist. And isn’t the Rosetta mission simply space archaeology?)

Scientists also recorded a “space song” that the comet appears to be emitting into space:

“The comet seems to be emitting a ‘song’ in the form of oscillations in the magnetic field in the comet’s environment,” the ESA says. “It is being sung at 40-50 millihertz, far below human hearing, which typically picks up sound between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. To make the music audible to the human ear, the frequencies have been increased by a factor of about 10,000.”

The ESA has created a video of how the landing should go:

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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