Spaceflight Insider

ESA’s Rosetta mission poised to ‘harpoon’ a comet

Rosetta Philae comet 67P Churyumov Gerasimenko European Space Agency ESA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The European Space Agency is poised to conduct the first landing of a spacecraft onto a comet - on Nov. 12. Image Credit: ESA

On Wednesday, Nov. 12, after a journey of nearly 11 years and an estimated 4 billion miles – scientists will attempt its first ever landing upon a comet. This double lobed icy body has been named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and it is about 2.5 miles across. If all goes according to plan, it will be one of the largest space-related events of the year – and certainly a pivotal one for the European Space Agency (ESA ).

ESA Rosetta spacecraft, which has been orbiting the comet since August 6, 2014 will deploy its box, shaped 220 lb lander called Philae for a 19 mile long descent to the surface which will take 7 hours. Landing is scheduled for 8:03 a.m. PST. The comet will be between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars (315 million miles from Earth) at landing and hurtling in toward its orbital swing around the sun, which it completes every 6.6 years.

The surface of this comet is complex and varied. Rosetta images from orbit reveal a landscape that could have easily come from a science fiction movie.

The surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is covered with smooth plains, depressions, boulders (some larger than a house), grooves, ridges, layered cliffs hundreds of feet high, steep slopes, pits and regions that are shooting out spectacular but hazardous jets of gas and dust akin to a spouting whale.

67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko Rosetta Philae lander European Space Agency ESA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Artist’s depiction of the Philae lander on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image Credit: ESA

The landing site is called Agilkia and it appears to be comprised of some fairly smooth plains/depressions with small scarps surrounding them. Some minor concentrations of boulders are also present. It should be noted that this site was chosen after 3 months of analysis from a set of candidates and this site was deemed the safest. This landing will be very risky, it is not a slam dunk by any means.

Because of the comet’s extreme low gravity and unknown surface conditions and properties the Philae lander has two harpoons it will fire to anchor it to the surface. Then after reeling the harpoon lines in the lander will touchdown and use its ice screws located at the bottom of each of the three feet to anchor itself onto the surface.

After landing Philae will commence its science operations by taking a panorama and surface property measurements. Descent and landing images are expected to be returned as soon as possible. Philae has the unique capability to drill into the subsurface for samples which will be analyzed by its suite of instruments to determine what the comet is made of and to see if any organic molecules are present.

The prime science mission is only supposed to last about 2.5 days and it will be on primary battery power. However, Philae has a second science phase planned that could last up to 3 months, which will be conducted using backup batteries that can be recharged by solar panels.

67P Churyumov Gerasimenko comet Rosetta Philae lander European Space Agency ESA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Artist’s depiction of the Rosetta spacecraft in orbit above 67P Churyumov Gerasimenko. Image Credit: ESA


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Dr. Jim W. Rice, Jr., is an Astrogeologist at the Planetary Science Institute, he has over 25 years research experience specializing on the surface geology and history of water on Mars. Dr. Rice is currently a Co-Investigator and Geology Team Leader on the Mars Exploration Rover Project (Spirit and Opportunity). Rice also has extensive mission experience as Associate Project Scientist on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey Orbiter Projects. He has been involved in Mars landing site selection and certification activities for every NASA Mars Mission since Mars Pathfinder. His career includes working for NASA, Astrogeology Headquarters of the United States Geological Survey, the Mars Spaceflight Facility located at Arizona State University and the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory located at the University of Arizona.

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