Space, and space related things generally can make some pretty big headlines. Whether it be Hubble, the Curiosity landing on Mars, or Space Oddity Chris Hadfield serenading us from aboard the ISS, the milestones in exploration history act as nice distraction from the typical news stories of any given day. What may be even more amazing is that the various international space agencies manage to do this great work with fractional budgets year over year.
The newest story in the space timeline is that of the first attempted landing on the surface of a comet, an endeavor that has been a decade in the making. Now although we are not trying to solve problems of an Armageddon fashion, comets do potentially hold information that philosophers have been trying to answer since the dawn of thought. Comets are thought to have been created during the original formation of planets approximately 4.5 billion years ago. Being primarily composed of ice, it is hypothesized that perhaps comets were the source of water on our planet.
The current Rosetta probe was released in 2004 by the European Space Agency. After getting multiple gravitational assists from Earth and Mars, Rosetta has been in a matched trajectory for nearly 3 months taking initial readings and images. Getting to the comet was one thing, landing provided a whole different set of problems to overcome.
The Philae lander was released from Rosetta with a 7 hour plan to land on the 2.5 mile wide comet. Because the comet is so small, the gravity of the surface is quite weak, and unlike larger objects it is quite easy to escape it's gravitational pull. The lander was designed with a thruster to hold it down as well as a harpoon to tether itself to the surface.
When stories like the Antares Rocket explosion or the Space-X crash make the news, it is nice that a successful landing also shares the headlines. Now that Rosetta and Philae are a mere ~300 million miles away we are a mere 28 minutes from getting a heaps of data to unlock more data about the Cosmos.
But, if landing on a comet was not cool enough for you, how about the live comic update from XKCD. Check out the archive here: XKCD 1446: Landing (click on the image to step through the live updates).
- Randall Munroe. "XKCD 1446"
- Frank Jordans. "Cosmic 1st: European spacecraft lands on comet" Associated Press. 11/12/2014