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article imageEuropeans schedule unprecedented soft landing on comet

By Mark J. Allan     Oct 15, 2014 in Science
Trying to unlock part of the mystery of life on Earth, the European Space Agency revealed Wednesday where it will attempt an unprecedented soft landing on a comet.
The European Space Agency revealed Wednesday where it plans to set down a landing craft next month on a comet in deep space.
Although NASA gets the lion’s share of cosmic public relations in North America, the ESA raised its profile by announcing its plan for an historic unmanned landing.
The refrigerator-sized Philae will try to touch down successfully Nov. 12 on Site J. That, the ESA said in a media release, is its top choice for a landing spot on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Part of the ESA’s 11-year Rosetta mission, it would be the first human attempt at a soft touchdown on a comet.
The mission will study how a comet evolves and the ESA hopes it will glean important insights into the formation of our solar system, the origins of water and, perhaps, even life on Earth.
“Now that we know where we are definitely aiming for, we are an important step closer to carrying out this exciting – but high-risk – operation,” said Fred Jansen, ESA’s Rosetta mission manager. “However, there are still a number of key milestones to complete before we can give the final Go for landing.”
Rosetta caught up with the comet in August after a 10-year, six billion-kilometre pursuit.
Since the Rosetta’s arrival at the four-kilometre-wide comet, the mission has been conducting an unprecedented survey and scientific analysis of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
From 100 km out Aug. 6, Rosetta has moved to just 10 km from the comet’s centre. This close view enabled a better assessment of primary and backup landing sites.
A series of crucial decisions must be made before Philae separates from the Rosetta, starting Nov. 11 with a confirmation from the flight dynamics team that Rosetta is on the right trajectory ahead of lander delivery.
Further decisions will be made during the night of Nov. 11 into the next morning concerning the readiness and uplink of commands, culminating in confirmation of the lander readiness for separation.
A short manoeuvre must take place about two hours before separation. This would align Rosetta to release Philae on the right trajectory to land on the comet.
After Philae’s release, Rosetta would move away from the comet, before reorienting itself to establish communications with Philae, the ESA explained.
“If any of the decisions result in a no-go, then we will have to abort and revise the timeline accordingly for another attempt, making sure that Rosetta is in a safe position to try again,” Jansen said.
Longer-term study of the comet by Philae will depend on how long batteries are able to recharge.
By March, as the comet moves closer in its orbit towards the Sun, temperatures inside the lander will have reached unmanageably high levels, and Philae’s mission will end.
The Rosetta orbiter’s mission will continue to accompany the comet as it grows in activity until their closest approach to the Sun in August 2015 and then as they head back towards the outer solar system.
With its headquarters in Paris, the ESA describes itself as Europe’s gateway to space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.
ESA programs are designed to learn more about Earth, its immediate space environment, the solar system and the universe, as well as to develop satellite-based technologies and services, and to promote European industries. ESA also works closely with space organizations outside Europe.
Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom belong to the ESA. Canada takes part in some projects.
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