Scientists at The European Space Agency (ESA) are all set for the final countdown to their historic attempt to land a spacecraft on a comet. The craft named Rosetta will drop the Philae lander to the surface of the Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and will be the culmination of a decade long endeavor to study the comet. The ESA says says Rosetta will make its last pre-drop burn at 0630 GMT. At around 1600GMT we’ll be able to see Philae touch down. That is, IF it makes it!
If all goes as per the plan, the lander will separate from the spacecraft about an hour after that and drift down to the comet, where it will latch on using harpoons and screws. Confirmation of the landing, if successful, should reach Earth — nearly 500 million kilometers (311 million miles) away — by about 1603 GMT (11:03 a.m. EST).
The lander of the space craft, Philae has been named so after an island in the River Nile which is mentioned in the story of the Rosetta Stone. Like the Rosetta stone from archaeology, Philae and Rosetta are expected to provide data which will help experts unravel a longstanding mystery — the mix of materials from which the solar system was made.
Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko is believed to be one of the remnants of the solar system’s formation 4.5 billion years ago. It is thus believed to preserve and contain the stuff that was shaped under other circumstances into Earth and the other planets.
“It’s a more dusty surface material, somewhere between hard-packed snow and cigarette ash,” Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor said Monday during a news briefing at the European Space Operations Center in Darmstadt, Germany.
The planners of this mission rate the chances of the success of this project at 75percent. If the touchdown does become an eventuality, Comet 67P will become the first comet and the seventh object in the solar system beyond Earth to be the locale for a soft landing. The other celestial objects include Earth’s moon, Venus, Mars, the Saturnian moon Titan and the asteroids Eros and Itokawa. Though NASA had conducted a Deep Impact Probe into Comet Tempel 1 in 2005,that does not technically qualify as a soft landing.
Whether Philae makes it successfully or vanishes into thin air, ESA says the broader Rosetta mission is still likely to meet most of its science objectives. The spacecraft is designed to extract samples from the surface of the comet with cameras, gas chromatographs and spectrometers while a magnetometer will measure the magnetic fields and sounding devices will drill into the interiors of the heavenly body.