Interpreting the Feat: Why the Rosetta Comet Landing Is Important
The world is feting the success of the Rosetta Mission. It finally landed on its target comet, Comet 67p/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, on November 12 this year after entering the Global Mapping Phase and orbiting Comet 67P at an altitude of 29 kilometers on September 10. To put things in perspective, this landing finally happened after around ten years when the Rosetta aircraft left Earth.
After landing on the comet’s surface, Rosetta deployed the lander called Philae, obviously named after the Philae obelisk associated with the Rosetta Stone. Philae is supposed to attach itself to the nucleus of the comet and transmit data about the comet, particularly related to the comet’s nucleus characteristics, chemical composition, and activities and developments on and around the surface over time.
But what makes this landing of an Earthling spacecraft on a comet a breakthrough? Isn’t this supposed to be easily doable with all the technological advancements available to mankind? The following discussions explain why the historic Rosetta comet landing is important, something that paves a brighter outlook for astronomical explorations in the future.
Landing on a Comet Is Way More Difficult than Landing on a Planet
There are many things that make it extremely difficult to land a spacecraft on a comet. Speed is arguably the foremost among these. The comet targeted by the Rosetta mission has a maximum speed of 135,000 km/h or 38 km/s. Scientists compare its speed to 40x the speed of a bullet. Just imagine the kind of precision and speed necessary to be able to intercept a huge heavenly body that travels at such speed. Add to that the fact that the comet also shoots away gas across all directions and there are no sure landing spots on its surface that can facilitate successful landing. The Rosetta success is indeed a breakthrough.
So how was the landing made possible? Scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA), the body responsible for the Rosetta Mission, had to device a way to allow the Rosetta spacecraft to safely rendezvous with Comet 67P. Obviously, man still does not have the technology to match the speed of a comet so instead of chasing it, the idea is to simply intercept it in its orbit. Gravity assist maneuvers were used to accelerate the Rosetta spacecraft throughout the inner solar system. The spacecraft was not made to directly land on the comet’s surface when it had the opportunity to come close to it. Instead, there were a number of “fly-bys” conducted to study possible safe landing points on the comet.
It Achieved Many Firsts
The Rosetta mission, even before landing on comet 67P, has already achieved many pioneering feats. For one, it is the first spacecraft to have orbited a comet nucleus. It is the first European mission to have made close encounters with many primitive objects in the solar system’s asteroid belt. Additionally, Rosetta is the first ever spacecraft to have traveled alongside a comet. Of course, it is also the first man-made craft that successfully landed on a comet’s surface. Obviously, it is the space mission to have obtained the first images of a comet’s surface while on the surface and the first to have made in-situ analysis of the comet’s composition.
Rosetta’s Probe May Provide Clues about Life on Earth
One of the most important reasons why scientists are striving to get as close as possible in studying the actual materials that make up comets is the possibility of obtaining useful knowledge related to how comets affect or may have affected life on Earth. The Rosetta mission could be able to yield clues to answer the possibility of whether or not life on Earth began when comets struck earth or when fragments from them fell to Earth’s surface.
Comet 67P is believed to be a remnant of the early solar system. That’s why fragments of it may offer evidences that will support the theory that comets were the driving force behind life on Earth. Many scientists share the idea that amino acids (the so called building blocks of life) and water were brought to Earth during the “bombardment phase” some four billion years ago.
Unfortunately, as of the latest ESA update, communication with the Philae lander was lost. Since it landed next to a cliff that blocked sunlight, it was unable to recharge its batteries through its solar panels. Nevertheless, it was able to send back home plenty of data about the comet’s surface before losing contact. The comet is now more than 500 million kilometers away from Earth.
Despite the dreaded and unexpected loss of communication with Philae, the Rosetta mission can still be considered a success. There were great amounts of data obtained although their usefulness are yet to be analyzed and determined. Now, mankind has the experience of actually landing a spacecraft on a comet. With the data obtained from this experience, the next attempt should be more successful.