Final preparations are underway at the European Space Agency (ESA) as scientists at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, ready themselves for one of the most complex and potentially significant space missions ever undertaken. On November 12th they plan to position their £1 billion spacecraft, Rosetta, above Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and release a small, 100kg lander craft, known as Philae, to descend for almost seven hours and, hopefully, land on the boulder-strewn comet. Once there, and if still intact and in working order, Philae will begin a series of experiments aimed at answering a number of core scientific questions.
How did the Solar System come into being? Were comets responsible for bringing water to Earth to make up our oceans? Did they play a part in delivering the organic chemicals to our planet that form the very first building blocks of life? As scientific knowledge has advanced at an increasing pace over the last century, we have come closer to answering the kinds of questions that have puzzled mankind for millennia and technology now plays a central role in almost all of our lives. Champions Speakers have a stunning array of technology speakers ready to shed light on all manner of themes and illuminate your corporate event with their views on how scientific advances will shape the future and even influence your organisation’s specific marketplace.
Space missions offer no guarantees and this is the first time man will have attempted to place a craft on a comet, but after 20 years of planning, ESA experts are confident they have covered all possible bases in this most intricate of challenges and assess their chance of success at 80%. While Philae has no thrusters or guidance system on board, a large target area of 1 square km has been identified on the comet’s surface. Nonetheless, this remains a risky business as boulders pose Philae a serious threat and tension will be high in the control room during the long moments in which technicians wait for a signal to confirm a safe landing.
The Rosetta probe was launched from French Guiana back in 2004 and took a complex route to Comet 67P that involved three fly-bys of Earth and a close encounter with Mars. After ten years manoeuvring through space, Rosetta’s cameras finally revealed to astronomers their isolated target, a ball of rock and ice just 2.5 miles in diameter, travelling through space at up to an unimaginable 135,000 kilometres per hour.
After slowing its own velocity, Rosetta was placed into orbit approximately 30 km from the comet in September and the probe then began to map the surface in search of a suitable landing site and analyse the gases and dust thrown out by Comet 67P as it heats up as it approaches the Sun. After weeks of diligent study, scientists identified a site they judged as giving Philae the best chance of survival.
The chosen spot not only had to be smooth and relatively crag and cliff free but it needed to receive enough sunlight to ensure the lander’s solar cells could be charged. To counter a lack of gravity that could potentially see Philae rebound off the surface into space, it has been fitted with ice screws and harpoons to be deployed at the point of touchdown.
If the landing is a success, Philae has a brief window of opportunity in which to glean the answers it seeks. It is expected that by next March, as the comet nears the Sun, conditions for the probe will become impossible, its instruments rendered useless by the heat. It is at this stage in its 6.44 year orbit of the Sun that high temperatures dramatically increase the volume of material spewing from the comet’s surface to the point that its customary glowing tail takes form.
All the Philae’s experimental data will be sent back to Rosetta and in turn transmitted back to Earth for in depth analysis. Scientists hope to find evidence of the amino acids they believe kicked of life on our planet and clues as to the likelihood of our water having cometary origins.
Science has brought us great knowledge and technology has improved our lives in so many ways but there remains uncertainty about our own origins. This mission will not answer every question we have, yet, should it succeed, will be better placed to make further discoveries in the future.
We wish ESA, its engineers and technicians every success in the coming week!
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