Since the disappointment of Comet Ison’s failure to survive its fly-by around the sun earlier this year, I must confess that I had lowered my expectations somewhat for the landing of the Philae probe onto the surface of Comet 67P on Wednesday.
But the ESA and the Rosetta mission team pulled-off the impossible.
Philae was released from the Rosetta orbiter and hop skipped and jumped onto the icy surface of the comet ready to make history.
It is only when you stop to think about what was actually achieved on Wednesday that you start to appreciate its significance.
- Comet discovered in 1969 by Klim Ivanovych Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko
- The comet is a periodic comet with a orbital period of around 6.5 years
- The rubber duck shaped lump of ice, dust and rock is 4.5km at its longest, and weighs 10 billion tonnes
- The Rosetta mission planning started over 25 years ago
- The mission is an all Egyptian theme: the orbiter is named after the Rosetta stone (a translation tablet of the world’s most ancient languages), and Philae is named after the Nile island where the obelisk that was used to decipher the stone’s inscription was found
- Areas of the comet have also been named after other notable Egyptian landmarks
- Rosetta was affixed to an Ariane 5 rocket on 16 February 2004, and was jettisoned on its way on 2 March
- It has taken 10 years to reach the comet, having first taken advantage of gravity assists from the Earth and Mars together with a total of three years in deep hibernation. It was awoken ready for the last leg of its journey in January 2014
- The probe finally reached the comet on the 6th August, and started its global mapping of the surface in September ready for a landing attempt.
Whilst Philae’s conscious life on 67P was short lived, it is hoped that the data it collected during this time will help unravel the mystery of how life began on earth. Comets are ancient remnants of the very beginning of our solar system, and have been orbiting our star since then for over four and a half billion years. Many believe, in fact, that water and amino acids contained within these magnificent tailed wanderers seeded our planet with the key ingredients to create life.
To think that a man made object, launched ten years ago, managed to land on a celestial body hurtling through the sky at an incredible 140,000 kph, is truly incredible, and is to the twenty first century what the Apollo moon landings were to the mid twentieth.
The release of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar this week was particularly timely. What both the movie and the Rosetta mission emphasise is just how difficult space travel is. Not only do you require absolute precision in calculating all possible situations, but the incomprehensible scale of time and space mean that any journey further than our inner neighbours would be a one way ticket, and those brave volunteers would be true space pioneers. In reality, without the prospect of warp drive spacecraft, the use of unmanned probes is the only realistic option for future space exploration. But let’s hope that the interest generated is week in the Rosetta mission will continue and ignite a broader interest in all things space.
For too long have celebrity culture and video channels dominated the interest of the next generation, and it is about time that the world falls in love once again with the awesomeness that is the universe.