Spacecraft Touches Down on Comet and Makes History

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Artist's impression of the Rosetta orbiter at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The image is not to scale. ESA–C. Carreau/ATG medialab

Philae landed gracefully on a comet. The intrepid robotic explorer launched from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta space probe and touched down at approximately 10 am CST today, becoming the first man-made craft to land on a comet.

While Rosetta will continue to monitor its lander, Philae will ride the comet as it hurdles through space some 311 million miles from Earth. Earth is 93 million miles from the sun.

Researchers and spectators alike packed into the dimly lit Space Visualization Lab at the Adler Planetarium to watch a live video feed of the ESA team in Darmstadt, Germany, as the lander settled gently onto the comet, formally known as Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The landing process itself took over seven hours and seemed to go off without a hitch.

“The lander is in good health,” says Lucianne Walkowicz, a researcher at Adler. “The first indications about the details of the landing will come when we get the pictures.”

That may be sooner rather than later. Though no pictures have yet been released by the ESA as of this post, a Spanish Twitter feed showed a desktop picture of what appeared to be the comet’s surface about two hours after Philae’s landing. The ESA later confirmed that the picture was legitimate.

Once the ESA team in Germany has determined that Philae is completely operational, they will begin the first of 10 experiments loaded onboard the craft. According to Adler researcher Mark Hammergren, these experiments will include drilling down into the comet to determine just what materials make it up as well as tomographically scanning the comet’s surface.

Rosetta comet landing

“This is the first time we will be able to study the materials that make up comets directly,” says Hammergren.

Philae’s main goal, however, has as much to do with Earth as it does with comets. ESA researchers hope to use data gathered in the coming months to determine whether or not Earth’s water arrived from comets drawn into the planet’s gravitational field billions of years ago. To test this theory, scientists will examine the ratio of water to deuterium oxide – also known as “heavy water” – found on and inside the comet.

“Philae has the chance to answer a lot of questions about the precise origin of water on Earth,” says Walkowicz.Philae’s main goal, however, has as much to do with Earth as it does with comets. ESA researchers hope to use data gathered in the coming months to determine whether or not Earth’s water arrived from comets drawn into the planet’s gravitational field billions of years ago. To test this theory, scientists will examine the ratio of water to deuterium oxide – also known as “heavy water” – found on and inside the comet.

According to the ESA, Philae is expected to continue exploring the comet until March 2015. At that point, the comet’s proximity to the sun will likely disable the craft. Until then however, scientists around the world will have a chance to examine a unique traveler in the solar system as never before.

Center image: A picture of the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken by Philae’s CIVA camera. One of Philae’s three “feet” can be observed in the foreground to the left. NASA

Originally published by Medill Reports Chicago

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