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Historic comet soft-landing — 1–2–3

17 November 2014

Historic comet soft-landing — 1–2–3

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Philae lander, the first robot geologist to soft-land (as opposed to impacting) onto a comet, made its historic landing recently on 12 November 2014. It made three landings  due to apparent failure of two redundant systems which were to firmly fix the lander onto the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P, for brevity). One system is rocket thrusters firing to force the lander onto the surface to counteract the landing bounce and the other, a harpoon system, to firmly anchor the lander onto the surface. The lander rebounded due to the extremely low gravity (about 1/50,000 that of Earth) quite high, and with a hang time which American football punters can only envy, to land and again bounce though in much less spectacular fashion. Less spectacular but if there was video to witness it would have been no less exciting since that bounce nearly had the lander leave the confines of the comet entirely!

Philae's rough landing infographic from

Philae’s rough landing infographic from

ESA caught a fortunate break though and the lander found its way to the comet’s surface though not quite on all three legs and in a shadow which will greatly reduce the solar panel recharge rate. Although the lander performed experiments, sending its precious and unique data to the mothership Rosetta, the batteries are now drained placing Philae in standy mode. Who knows, as 67P continues on its orbital path around the Sun the shadow may diminish allowing Philae to accomplish its drilling and increase the amount of data gathered.

It is remarkable to think of the Wright Brothers flight barley over a century ago and we are now landing probes on comets after their years of travel across millions of miles. Well done ESA!


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