After more than 10 years of traveling through space, the Rosetta spacecraft — the first space vehicle to travel to a comet — is finally taking a load off. Well, part of it is, anyway.
This morning, the European Space Agency confirmed the landing site for Rosetta’s lander, Philae, on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Out of five potential areas for touchdown, a region known as Site J was picked for the historic landing, which is currently scheduled for November 12. Site J is located on the smaller of the comet’s “lobes” (or the “head” of the rubber ducky-shaped comet).
The landing will mark the first time a spacecraft has touched down on a comet. But the mission won’t exactly be a cakewalk. There’s still a lot more to be done before the landing can happen, and comet 67P’s weird shape means there’s a significant chance the 220-pound lander will more crash than land.
On November 11, the day before the expected touchdown, the flight dynamics team will have to make a series of “Go/No-Go” decisions in order to determine that Rosetta is where it needs to be to deliver Philae safely. Since Rosetta arrived at the comet on August 6, it has been moving closer to the comet body every day. Right now, it’s about 10 kilometers away from 67P, which is only 4 kilometers wide itself. But on landing day, the spacecraft will need to be 22.5 kilometers away from the comet’s center.
Two hours before Philae is released, Rosetta will perform a short maneuver to ensure the lander is on the right trajectory to land (and not crash). As of now, Philae’s separation is scheduled for 8:35 am GMT, or 3:35 in the morning for those on the East coast. The landing will occur about seven hours after that, but because of the travel signal time between Rosetta and Earth, we won’t know if it made it down safely until 28 minutes later.
During its descent to 67P, Philae will take pictures and even perform a few experiments, testing the dust and plasma environment surrounding the comet. Once it makes it to its new home, Philae has about 64 hours of primary battery life to conduct its first sequence of science experiments.
After that, lengthier experiments kind of all depend on how much longer the batteries can last. Philae has solar panels for generating energy, but the team expects that dust will eventually settle on them, complicating the process. Man, if only 67P had an outlet…
Finally, in March 2015, the comet will have moved along its orbit, bringing it much closer to the sun. By that point, Philae will be so hot that it can’t continue with its work, and the whole operation will come to an end. But though we will have lost a lander, hopefully we will have gained a significant understanding about the evolution of comets — and the origins of our Solar System.