Of All The Iceballs In All The Universe, We Had To Land On This One



Yesterday, humanity accomplished a first. I love it when that happens.

At 1600 GMT the Philae lander, launched from the Rosetta spacecraft, successfully landed on the surface of the rocky, roughly duck shaped comet 67P, marking the first time a man made object has touched down on the surface of a comet, asteroid, or other Small Solar System Body. The Rosetta mission, launched in 2004 by the European Space Agency, has traveled more than 6 billion kilometres to reach it's current position 510 million kilometres away, in the space between Mars and Jupiter. It caught up to 67P's elliptical orbit, which extends slightly past Jupiter and brings it in to approximately half way between Earth and Mars, and spent weeks mapping the surface of the object so that the Earth-bound team could find the optimal place for a touchdown attempt. An attempt that they gave only a 50% chance of success.

Philae, which will remain in operation until March of next year, with the orbiting Rosetta continuing on until December, or possibly six months after that depending on fuel consumption, was sent to study the composition of primordial comets. Comets were formed 4 billion years ago at the initial formation of the solar system, and have remained preserved since then. To directly study the composition of comets is to both study the original base building blocks of the solar system, and gives us insight into how our planet was formed. Comets, which are frozen balls of ice from the Oort Cloud, are responsible for the vast majority of the water present in a solar system, as comets fall out of their cloud and into the sun's gravity well, randomly smashing into the larger planets and moons further on in. The water that was discovered on the moon is there because of the repeated bombardment over the millenia by comets.

But more than that, research such as the 2005 Deep Impact mission, which shot a copper block at a comet to study the detritus cast off, suggest that comets carry the essential basic elements necessary to create the building blocks for life. The problem is, only so much research can be done studying spray residue and spectrographic analysis. Sometimes, you need to get your hands dirty. The Philae lander is equipped with 10 instruments that will allow for hands on research. These include drilling down 20cm for sample collection, and creating a map of the comet's interior using radio-waves.

The touchdown took seven hours, most of which mission control was completely in the dark. When they reestablished contact, they discovered that a key component of the mission - a twin set of harpoons meant to moor Philae to the surface of the comet - hadn't fired. Meaning that while currently stable, the craft, which weighs only half an ounce in the gravity-weak field generated by 67P, is subject to environmental issues. Namely, gaseous outbursts. Comets, when cold, are icecubes. But when they warm, as 67P will are is nears the sun, they are subject to melting, which in turn allows trapped pockets of pressurized gases to escape in violent bursts of energy. These have been effectively dramatized in Deep Impact. The six month life span of the Philae was given because, by that time, the instruments will become too warm as it swings around the sun. That evaluation was based on Philae being securely tied to the surface. Without the harpoons keeping it tied down, the craft will be subject to potential expulsion should an explosion occur too close.

Whether the Rosetta mission is ultimately a success or a failure, this is nothing short of a monumental achievement. Humanity managed to successfully park a complex and delicate scientific instrument on a snowball hurtling through space at 135,000 km/h, and it mostly worked on the first try. If private companies are serious about wanting to mine asteroids and gather precious element that we've been depleting here on Earth, these are the first steps that must be taken. These initial endeavors will set the stage for all that comes after. This won't be the last such mission, and the data that Rosetta and those that follow gather will give us our best look at how the solar system evolved, from formation to fruition, like cracking open a time capsule. That that sort of information can, without hyperbole, be described as potential life altering. And that is exciting.

Via the Guardian.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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