…Or would you rather land on a comet?
By SUSANNE MARIE POULETTE
As I was preparing a completely different post for today, I was side tracked by the news of the European Space Agency’s mission that landed a small spacecraft on the surface of a speeding comet more than 300 million miles from Earth. For ten years, the Rosetta spacecraft carried the 220 pound Philae lander, said to be the size of a washing machine. On Wednesday, November 12th, Rosetta maneuvered into position and placed Philae on a comet named 67P, 2.5 miles in diameter and moving at 40,000 miles an hour.
Certainly, this isn’t the first spacecraft sent to explore a comet, but it’s the first to make this level of contact and actually land. “Our ambitious Rosetta mission has secured a place in the history books: not only is it the first to rendezvous with and orbit a comet, but it is now also the first to deliver a lander to a comet’s surface,” posted Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s director general on their website.
One of the many questions that Rosetta is exploring, is whether Earth’s oceans are filled with melted comets. The rocky parts that formed the planet were dry, so water must have come from somewhere else. Perhaps comets seeded our planet with water when they crashed into Earth in its earliest days?
“Rosetta is trying to answer the very big questions about the history of our solar system,” Matt Taylor, ESA Rosetta project scientist, said on the ESA website. “What were the conditions like at its infancy and how did it evolve? What role did comets play in this evolution? How do comets work?”
Unfortunately, Philae’s landing placed its solar panels in a shadow, compromising the ability to restore its batteries. Despite efforts to correct the problem, by Saturday, November 15, the ESA’s Rosetta blog stated, “Our lander’s asleep. With its batteries depleted and not enough sunlight available to recharge, Philae has fallen into ‘idle mode’ for a potentially long silence. In this mode, all instruments and most systems on board are shut down.”
“Prior to falling silent, the lander was able to transmit all science data gathered during the First Science Sequence,” said Stephan Ulamec, Lander Manager. “This machine performed magnificently under tough conditions, and we can be fully proud of the incredible scientific success Philae has delivered.”
“In theory, Philae and its scientific instruments could be reawakened as the comet gets closer to the sun in the coming months, but it’s far too early to think about that,” said Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec.
In the meantime, the Rosetta orbiter is moving back into orbit around the comet, and will perform “a series of daring flybys past the comet, some within just 8 km of its centre.” Rosetta’s data will allow scientists to watch the short- and long-term changes as they occur on the comet. “The data collected by Philae and Rosetta is set to make this mission a game-changer in cometary science,” said Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.
It’s easy to be blasé about space exploration these days. I mean, we’ve come a long, long way since launching poor little unsuspecting monkeys into orbit. Much of what used to be science fiction is now reality. Does anyone recall Buck Rogers? He’s the fictional sci-fi character who first appeared in 1928’s Amazing Stories, and is credited with bringing the concept of space exploration into pop culture.
Science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds commented on the ESA mission: “This is science fiction made real in terms of the achievement of the mission itself, but Rosetta is also taking us a step closer to answering science fiction’s grandest question of all: Are we alone?” (CNN)
Speaking of science fiction, the European Space Agency released a short sci-fi movie to promote its “audacious Rosetta comet mission,” Ambition the film.
Why am I so taken with this? Well, aren’t we all part of this universe? Aren’t some of us taken with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, or Stephen Hawkins’ A Brief History of Time? I am, how about you? A couple of years ago, my engineer son introduced me to the work of Brian Greene, the theoretical physicist and string theorist, and New York Times bestselling author. I was hooked after reading Greene’s The Elegant Universe.
If you, too, would like to learn more about this mission, comets, and the cosmos, we have some resources and links for you. If you are a home schooler, a parent of a child who is fascinated with the planets and space, or if you, yourself want to learn more and marvel at science’s discoveries, here are some ideas:
Leap Into Space: Exploring the Universe and Your Place in It by Nancy F. Castaldo (see her 9/17/2014 interview archived on this blog), encourages learning about the universe through observation, experiments, and crafts. It includes the sun, the moon, Earth, Saturn, Jupiter, brown dwarfs, comets, black holes, and asteroids. It also includes astronomers from Galileo to Sally Ride.
Brian Greene has an excellent website for learning about the Universe. You can sign up for free courses of varying learner levels at Greene’s World Science U: http://www.briangreene.org/. You can check out his books there as well:
Icarus at the Edge of Time: “A perfect book for smart parents to read to smart children.” Washington Post
“Page after page shows gorgeous, swirling color set in the blackness of infinity . . . Against these stunning visuals is a retelling of the classical myth of Icarus.”Wall Street Journal.
The Carl Sagan Portal, with an introductory video of Cosmos, links, resources and books: http://www.carlsagan.com/.
NASA’s website with sections for the public, educators, and students: http://www.nasa.gov/.
This site details the Rosetta mission and NASA’s contribution of three of the orbiter’s instruments and an electronics package: http://www.nasa.gov/rosetta/
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory website with multiple activities, games, and more. http://rosetta.jpl.nasa.gov/
You can listen to the 67P comet “sing” at: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4374, and play the interactive Comet Quest game and operate the Rosetta spacecraft and make scientific decisions.
“EVEN STICKS AND STONES HAVE A SPIRITUAL ESSENCE, A MANIFESTATION OF THE MYSTERIOUS POWER THAT FILLS THE UNIVERSE.” ~ Sioux Indian