The most significant space science accomplishment of my almost 70-year lifetime took place at 8:03 a.m. today Pacific Time when the European Space Agency (ESA) soft-landed a relatively tiny 220-pound refrigerator-sized module on the surface of a speeding comet known as 67P. In true modern-age fashion, the spacecraft tweeted, “Touchdown! My new address: #67P”.
The landing was the culmination of a 10-year mission which has had Philae’s “mother ship”, dubbed Rosetta, pacing 67P through space and taking very close-up measurements of the comet.
This is a mind-blowingly complex mission, an order of magnitude more challenging, scientists say, than hitting an asteroid. Asteroid orbits are relatively predictable; comets not so much. And with tolerances in the millimeter range for some of the machinations needed to accomplish this feat, that makes the situation far more fluid than any other mission we’ve tried.
It appears that when Philae landed, some or all of the harpoons scientists invented to anchor the lander to the comet’s surface failed to deploy, although five hours after touchdown scientists were still evaluating that data. There is an indication that the lander actually may have bounced on landing and then re-landed. Obviously, the gravity on the surface of something as tiny as a comet is extremely low. That was one of the many huge challenges space scientists faced when planning this mission.
There are a couple of other, less discussed perhaps less obvious aspects of the Rosetta mission and the Philae landing that have drawn me in. I’ll be writing separate posts on these today or tomorrow.
UPDATE: I have written those posts. Here is the one on the global aspects of the accomplishment and here is the one about the relationship between the Rosetta-Philae mission and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
The first is the fact that this is truly an international accomplishment of the highest order. It proves — perhaps more than any other single undertaking — the viability of the European Union. That, in turn, holds such great hope for the future of humanity that in my dark moments when I contemplate the extinction of the species due to global climate change, I think first not of the United States but of the European Union as the source of inspiration and global cooperation. It’s by far the biggest antidote to the fake American Exceptionalism movement I can think of.
Second, the implications of this mission for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence are hard to overstate. For more years than I can remember any other single interest in my life, I’ve been interested in that subject. This mission has reawakened that focus and while it hasn’t (yet) turned it into a passion, it is certainly stirring my inner juices and driving my curiosity to new levels.
Thanks, ESA, Rosetta and Philae! You are providing an old(er) man with some real intellectual passion that transcends the usual day-to-day of my exciting but somewhat predictable existence.