Rosetta and the Rubber Duck: first ever probe landing on comet

The Rosetta spacecraft, launched by the European Space Agency  in 2004, has made history as the first ever craft to land a probe on a comet. After a 6.4 billion km journey through space, the ambitious Rosetta mission achieved its most exciting feat to date, as the Philae probe touched down onto the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at 16:03 GMT on November 12th.

After 10 years travelling through the solar system, Rosetta finally arrived at the 4 billion year-old comet in August 2014. The first ever space mission to “rendezvous with and orbit a comet”, Rosetta “is now also the first to deliver a lander to a comet’s surface” stated the ESA’s Director General, Jean-Jacques Dordain: the Rosetta satellite separated successfully from Philae at 09:03 GMT on November 12th, followed by an agonising seven-hour wait for the probe to touch down on the surface of the rubber duck-shaped comet.

Rosetta and the rubber duck. Photo credit ESA/ATG medialab; ESA/Rosetta/Navcam

Rosetta and the rubber duck. Photo credit ESA/ATG medialab; ESA/Rosetta/Navcam

Scientists hope that the €1.3 billion Rosetta mission will provide clues about our own origins, and Philae is hoped to take photos of the comet and analyse its chemical composition over several months. One important goal is to measure the water ice content of 67P, testing the theory that comets like this provided all the water on Earth after its formation. Data collected from the ancient comet by the Philae probe will be transmitted by the Rosetta satellite over a distance of 317 million miles, to scientists all over the world.


Comet 67P. Photo credit ESA OSIRIS

Comet 67P. Photo credit ESA OSIRIS

However, last-minute problems on board the lander have caused uncertainties as to the probe’s current stability. As the satellite prepared for separation, routine health checks discovered a glitch in the active descent system. As well as harpoons to lock Philae into place, a cold gas thruster on top of the lander was designed to provide a counteracting force to ensure a secure touchdown: unfortunately the thruster could not be activated. Following critical Go/NoGo decisions, the separation process was initiated, but the probe’s landing seven hours later was compromised and in fact neither the harpoons nor thruster were deployed.

The team will decide whether to risk firing the harpoons to stabilise the probe, as 67P hurtles through space at 40 000 mph. Meanwhile scientists wait for intermittent updates from Rosetta, as the satellite moves in and out of radio visibility during its unprecedented orbit of the comet.



Featured image credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

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Veronica Wignall

Veronica is a Biology graduate from the University of Bristol, she is currently an editorial assistant but hopes to move into science media comms! Follow Veronica on Twitter @vronwig

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