Space

autonomous_spaceport_drone_ship

Hitting a Bullseye From Orbit: SpaceX’s Automated Landing System.

Reducing the cost of getting things into orbit isn’t easy, as the still extremely high cost of getting cargo to orbit can attest. For the most part this is because of the enormous energy requirement for getting things out of Earth’s gravity well and nearly all launch systems today being single use. Thus the areas where there are efficiencies to be gained are somewhat limited, that is unless we start finding novel methods of getting things into orbit. Without question SpaceX is at the forefront of this movement, having designed some of the most efficient rocket engines to date. Their next project is something truly novel, one that could potentially drop the total cost of their launches significantly.

autonomous_spaceport_drone_ship

Pictured above is SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone, essentially a giant flat barge  that’s capable of holding its position steady in the sea thanks to some onboard thrusters, the same many deployable oil rigs use. At first glance the purpose of such a craft seems unclear as what use could they have for a giant flat surface out in the middle of the ocean? Well as it turns out they’re modifying their current line of Falcon rockets to be able to land on such a barge, allowing the first stage of the rocket to be reused at a later date. In fact they’ve been laying the foundations of this system for some time now, having tested it on their recent ORBCOMM mission this year.

Hitting a bullseye like that, which is some 100m x 30m, coming back from orbit is no simple task. Currently SpaceX is only able to get their landing radius down to an area of 10KM or so, several orders of magnitude higher than what the little platform provides. Even with the platform being able to move and with the new Falcon rockets being given little wings to control the descent SpaceX doesn’t put their chances higher than 50% of getting a successful landing the first time around. Still whilst the opportunity for first time success might be low SpaceX is most definitely up to the challenge and it’ll only be a matter of time before they get it.

The reason why this is such a big deal is that any stage of the rocket that can be recovered and reused drastically reduces the costs of future launches. Many people think that the fuel would likely be the most expensive part of the rocket however that’s not the case, it’s most often all the other components which are the main drivers of cost for these launch systems. Thus if a good percentage of that craft is fully reusable you can avoid incurring that cost on every launch and, potentially, reduce turnaround times as well. All of these lead to a far more efficient program that can drive costs down, something that’s needed if we want to make space more accessible.

It just goes to show how innovative SpaceX is and how lucky the space industry is to have them. A feat like this has never been attempted before and the benefits of such a system would reach far across all space based industries. I honestly can’t wait to see how it goes and, hopefully, see the first automated landing from space onto a sea platform ever.

PIA19088

Curiosity Smells Farts on Mars.

There’s many ways to look for life on other planets. Most of our efforts currently focus on first finding environments that could sustain life as we know it which is why the search (and subsequent discovery) of water on other celestial bodies is always a cause for celebration. Once we’ve got a target though the search needs to become more nuanced as we have to seek out the clues that life leaves behind or the blocks that build it. For life as we know it one of the first things we can look for is the presence of organic molecules, the essential parts that make up all of life as we know it. One of these such molecules is methane, reknown for being a component in flatulence, something which Curiosity recently detected on Mars.

PIA19088

Methane, and other organic compounds, don’t necessarily require life in order to form however their presence does indicate that there was an environment favourable to life at one point in time. For Mars this was some time ago, on the order of billions of years, and so it’s highly unlikely that any remaining methane is due to microbial activity. However there has to be some local source of methane near Curiosity as it detected a ten fold spike in the amount of methane in Mars’ atmosphere, something which it has never seen before. Additionally Curiosity detected other organic molecules in a rock it drilled into recently, indicating that there was a time when organics must have been prevalent across the entire surface of Mars.

The discovery was made sometime ago however the researchers needed to rule out the possibility that the reading was caused by organics that were trapped in Curiosity’s sensors from Earth. Things like this happen more often than you think as whilst we take every precaution to ensure that there isn’t any contaminations on craft like this it’s inevitable that the sensors, all of which are highly complex machines, end up having stray molecules trapped within them. Because of that however we’ve gotten pretty good at identifying when things came along for the ride and this particular methane spike didn’t originate from Earth.

The organics in the rock are most intriguing however as they tell a story of Mars’ atmosphere that stretches back to the point where it still held liquid water on its surface. The ratio of isotopes in the water (which I talked about yesterday in regards to the discoveries Rosetta has made) indicates that the mineral formed some time after Mars lost much of its water, if we assume that the water on Mars and Earth came from the same place. However the ratio is also radically different to the water in Mars’ atmosphere today indicating that it formed before Mars lost the rest of its surface water. It will be interesting to see how this sample compares to other places around Mars as it will paint a detailed picture of the planet’s surface over time.

It seems like it will be only a matter of time before we find a large source of water on Mars, buried deep beneath the surface somewhere. From there we’ll have an exciting period of analysis to determine if microbial life still thrives on what appears to be a dead planet. Unfortunately that’s not likely to happen any time soon, at least not until we get people there anyway, but with NASA recommitting themselves to such an endeavour it might come sooner than many first thought. Honestly I can’t wait for that to occur as it will shed so much light on how life evolves and, possibly, what it can become.

First_measurements_of_comet_s_water_ratio

Rosetta’s Data Provides Clues to Origins of Water on Earth.

The origin of Earth’s water is still something of an open debate. The popular theory at the moment is that the primordial Earth was far too hot to contain any form of liquid water, its molten surface still reeling from the cataclysmic events that led to its creation. However others postulate that the water was trapped deep below the surface, only to arise later on as the Earth cooled and an atmosphere developed. It’s an interesting question not only because of how fundamental water is to life but also because we seem to have a lot more of it than any other planet in the solar system. Thus the question of where it came from, and why it’s managed to stick around for so long, is one of continuous scientific enquiry, including such missions as the recently celebrated Rosetta probe.

First_measurements_of_comet_s_water_ratio

If we run with the theory that Earth’s water came from some extraplanetary source then the question turns to what the original source might be. Comets seem like a good candidate as they’re primarily water ice by composition and were far more common during the early stages of Earth’s life than they are now. However measurements of isotopes within water of several comets, including Halley, Hyakutake  and Hale-Bopp has shown that they are not likely the primary source of water that’s currently on Earth’s surface. The composition of water found on asteroids and other water formed minerals on the Moon seem to indicate that a source closer to home is far more likely which Rosetta’s latest data appears to confirm.

The comet that Rosetta was investigating, the romantically named 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, has a ratio of isotopes that is completely different to anything that’s seen on Earth. The reason that this is important is due to it’s orbit as 67P is what we call a Jupiter class comet, a collection of various comets that have orbits that don’t extend far past Jupiter. It was thought that these kinds of comets would have been more likely to have been involved in the creation of Earth’s oceans than comets from further out, due to their proximity. However 67P, with its wildly different composition to Earth (and even other bodies in the same vicinity), lends credence to the idea that comets aren’t the likely source of Earth’s oceans. Indeed it’s far more likely that water and minerals trapped in asteroids are the likely source, based on how similar their composition is.

Now this doesn’t rule out comets completely as there’s potential for further out Kuiper belt class comets to have the composition we’re looking for but it’s looking far more likely that objects from within the asteroid belt are responsible for the oceans we have today. What the mechanism was for them making their way to Earth, whether it was early on in the cataclysmic forming of our solar system or later on when things calmed down, is something that’s still an open question. It’s one we might also have answers to very soon as Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Ceres early next year, the biggest object in the asteroid belt. What Dawn finds there might be the key to unlocking the secrets of our Earth’s oceans and, potentially, the asteroid belt itself.

Orion Exploration Flight Test

NASA’s Orion Takes Flight.

Since before the Shuttle’s retirement back in 2011 NASA has been looking towards building the next generation of craft that will take humans into space. This initially began with the incredibly ambitious Ares program which was set to create a series of rockets that would be capable of delivering humans to any place within our solar system. That program was cancelled in 2010 by President Obama and replaced with a more achievable vision, one that NASA could accommodate within its meagre budget. However not all the work that was done on that program was lost and the Orion capsule, originally intended to ride an Ares-I into space, made its maiden flight last week signalling a new era for NASA.

Orion Exploration Flight Test

The profile for this mission is a fairly standard affair, serving as a shakedown of all the onboard systems and the launch stack as a whole. In terms of orbital duration it was a very short mission, lasting only 2 orbits, however that orbit allowed them to gather some key data on how the capsule will cope with deep space conditions. It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the craft as the mission was meant to launch the day before however a few technical issues, mostly to do with the rockets, saw NASA miss the initial launch window. However the second time around they faced no such issues and with the wind playing nice Orion blasted off for its twice around the world voyage.

When I first read about the mission I was curious as to why it was launching into such an unusual orbit. To put it in perspective the apogee (the point of the orbit furthest away from the earth) was some 5,800KM which is an order of magnitude higher than anything else in low Earth orbit. As it turns out this was done deliberately to fling the Orion capsule through the lower Van Allen belt. These belts are areas of potentially damaging radiation, something which all intersolar craft must pass through on their journey to other planets in our solar system. Since Orion is slated to carry humans through here NASA needs to know how it copes with this potential hazard and, if there are any issues, begin working on a solution.

The launch system which propelled the Orion capsule into orbit was a Delta-IV Heavy which currently holds the crown for the amount of payload that can be delivered to low Earth orbit. It will be the first and last time that we’ll be seeing Orion riding this rocket as the next flight, slated for launch towards the end of 2018, will be the Space Launch System. This is the launch system that replaced the Ares series of rockets when Obama cancelled the Constellation program and will be capable of delivering double the payload of the Delta-IV Heavy. It’s going to need that extra power too as the next Orion mission is an uncrewed circumlunar mission, something NASA hasn’t done in almost 5 decades.

It’s great to see progress from NASA, especially when it comes to its human launch capabilities. The Shuttle was an iconic craft but it simply wasn’t the greatest way to get people into space. The Orion however is shaping up to be the craft that might finally pull NASA out of the rut it’s found itself in ever since the Apollo missions ended. We’re still a while off from seeing people make a return to space on the back of a NASA branded rocket but it’s now a matter of when, and not if, it will happen.

DNA Helix

DNA Can Survive in Space, Re-Entry into Atmosphere.

There’s a few competing theories around how life came to be on our planet. One of them is the theory of abiogenesis, the idea that the building blocks of life assembled themselves from the primordial soup of the Earth to eventually give rise to life as we know it today. As an origin for all life it makes sense as it had to come from somewhere although whether or not it was how life came to be here is still up for question. Indeed the competing theory for how life originated here comes in the form of panspermia, the notion that our world was somehow seeded with life from planets elsewhere. Whilst it’s likely impossible to prove either of these theories they do lead to some interesting  areas of scientific research, the latter of which just bore some interesting fruit.

DNA HelixOne of the biggest questions with the idea of panspermia is whether or not the building blocks of life could survive in the harsh climate of space. We have known for some time that simple forms of life are able to tolerate the conditions of space for what seems like an eternity but given the time frames involved it’s far more likely that their genetic components would be the only things that would survive the long journey through space. Whether or not DNA could survive some of the most harsh conditions, like plunging back into the Earth’s atmosphere at re-entry speeds, is a question that researchers at the University of Zurich attempted to answer.

The results are quite intriguing, showing that the DNA molecules (which were applied to the outside of the craft with no shielding to speak of) was still viable upon returning to Earth. Whilst it’s far from a long duration spaceflight, the TEXUS launch system is a sub-orbital platform, it does show that DNA is very resilient to the harsh conditions experienced in space, lending credence to the idea that our Earth may have been seeded with genetic material of alien origin. Just how that material would have ended up finding it’s way here though is another question entirely, although it is an interesting one.

Genetic material lacks the capability to launch itself into space and so the only way it finds its way off a planet (bar ours) is to hitch a ride on a cataclysmic event. Large asteroids that impact a planet shoot up all manner of ejecta, some with enough energy to escape their planet’s gravity entirely. It’s a rare event, to be sure, however it’s happened often enough that we’ve got numerous bits of Mars scattered on Earth’s surface and likely bits of other planets that we don’t yet know about. If just a few of these kinds of asteroids hit Earth at the right time our origins of life might lie far beyond our own planet, or possible even our own galaxy.

It never ceases to amaze me just how resilient the building blocks of life are, being able to survive the harshest conditions and still remain viable. This then leads onto us finding life in all sorts of weird places, ones where you’d think it’d be impossible for anything to survive. I honestly can’t wait for the day when we find life on another planet, even if its microbes, as it will tell us so much about who we are and where we came from.

 

Firefly Alpha

Firefly Space Systems’ Novel Approach to Rocketry.

If there’s one thing we can’t have enough of it’s different companies providing access to space. Whilst much of the progress in the private space industry might be attributable to a couple companies they will need some healthy competition in order to keep them in check, lest they fall into the same traps that their old space predecessors did. Indeed many of these new space companies that are cropping up are pursuing technologies that others have let slip by the wayside, some of which deserve thorough investigation. Firefly Space Systems, founded at the beginning of this year by a former SpaceX engineer, is the latest company to try its hand at providing access to space and it’s doing so in a very novel way.

Firefly Alpha

Shown above is the concept for their Firefly Alpha which employs several novel technologies that you likely won’t have seen on any other craft before. For starters much of the launch body will be made of composite materials, similar to that of other private space start up Rocket Lab. The engines on the bottom are also noteworthy as they’re arranged as a plug-type aerospike, an engine type that’s been built (and tested) by numerous parties in the past but has never been used in a production craft before. The design also incorporates an autogenous (self pressurizing) fuel system, something which has the potential to make the craft far more efficient than other designs. All in all the design is quite impressive as the trade-offs it makes are radically different to those of more traditional rocket designs.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the composite designs perform as whilst the idea has been somewhat validated by Rocket Lab there’s yet to be a full sized rocket launch using it. Should the idea scale up to the levels that both Firefly and Rocket Lab require then there’s a lot of potential for their systems to be far more efficient than their more traditional brethren, although I’m sure there’s some trade offs that will have to be made. What they are and whether or not they’re worth it is something I can’t really determine (I am not a rocket scientist) but I’d doubt the drawbacks would be that severe considering 2 independent companies are pursuing it.

I’ve always been a fan of the aerospike design, mostly because the pure torodial ones look like something out of science fiction, but I know the reason why they’ve never made their way into a production craft. They’re a jack-of-all trades deal, maintaining approximately the same efficiency under all circumstances whilst not really excelling in any one of them. Traditional rocket design accommodated this by using different types of engines during different stages, something which has worked pretty well for pretty much all launch platforms. The question that Firefly will have to answer is whether the trade off of better efficiency closer to sea level (something all current rocket engines struggle with) outweighs the reduced efficiency in a vacuum when compared to the bell type engines. I’m sure the modelling they’ve done tells them yes but nothing beats real data when it comes to rocketry.

The real secret sauce of their design might be in the self-pressurizing fuel tanks, something which I’m not sure I’ve seen in any other rocket design before. In traditional rockets as the fuel is depleted it’s replaced by a pressurized gas so that the pressure within the tank remains constant. This means that you have to carry that gas and its associated systems with you, reducing your overall payload capacity. Firefly’s system instead uses it’s own fuel, in this case methane, which is routed around the aerospike to cool it (a common technique) and then pumped back into the fuel chamber as a gas. Then once all the fuel is spent the gas can also be used to provide a last bit of thrust, something the inert gas style models can’t readily achieve. If it works the way they say it does there’s quite a lot of potential for this plucky rocket as that little bit of extra efficiency could be enough to offset all their other trade offs.

All in all I like Firefly’s rocket design as it incorporates both novel design decisions as well as trade offs that most traditional rocket companies don’t make. The overall system could end up being vastly more efficient than its individual components, something which I don’t think many other launch companies consider when looking at these technologies in isolation. Whether it will all come together is something we’ll be waiting a while for though as this nascent company likely won’t be launching anything for a couple years. Still I’m eager to see what they can accomplish as we can never have too many people tackling the issue of getting access to space.

NASA Airship Concept

NASA Looking to Airships for Sub-Orbital Observations.

When you think of scientific telescopes there’s usually only 2 different types that come to mind. The ones down here on terra firma, with their giant white domes covering their precious mirrors, and the ones up in space like the venerable Hubble Space Telescope. Each of these has is set of benefits and drawbacks, like the ground based ones having massive mirrors and the space based ones not having to deal with our atmosphere. However there’s potential for a telescope that straddles the boundaries of these two types of telescopes, one that’s far above the Earth’s surface but also doesn’t require the heavy energy investment of an orbital craft. Indeed NASA has flown craft like these in the past and they’re now looking to airships to fly the next generation of such telescopes.

NASA Airship Concept

Ground based telescopes suffer from 2 major drawbacks related to the atmosphere. The first is the aberrations caused by the shifting atmosphere, the same thing that causes the stars to twinkle at night, which makes precise measurements incredibly difficult. The second is that the atmosphere is great at absorbing a lot of the frequencies of light, specifically infrared, something which we can’t really overcome with special optics or filters. Putting a telescope in space negates these problems but brings with it a whole other set of challenges which is precisely why NASA is looking to develop a sub-orbital telescope concept using an airship as the platform.

NASA has constructed platforms like this in the past, the most notable one of which is SOFIA, an infrared observatory that’s built into the back of a Boeing 747. At its cruising altitude it’s able to see 85% of the total infrared light coming to Earth a considerable amount more than any ground based telescope will be able to see. The primary limit to SOFIA is its endurance time which is around eight hours or so although its capability to be pretty much anywhere in the world does make it incredibly flexible in the operations it can perform. The airship design that NASA is looking to pursue would address this limitation whilst providing some other benefits.

Airships, whilst not being as mobile as their winged cousins, have the advantage of being able to stay aloft in a location for extended periods of time that aircraft simply aren’t capable of doing. For an observatory this provides several advantages such as being able to do longer exposures on targets as well as being able to take advantage of higher bandwidth downlinks to their base sites. There are several engineering challenges that will need to be solved before a viable aircraft will materialize, but it’s certainly within the realms of possibility.

Pending funding of the idea NASA will be funding it X-prize style, looking for designs (and I assume workable craft) that can carry a small or large payload up into the atmosphere. Such programs have proved to be highly successful in the past and I’m sure we’ll see some pretty interesting craft come out of it. Considering that SOFIA is slated to be shut down due to budgetary concerns sometime next year a viable alternative needs to be sought so they don’t introduce more holes in their capabilities. Of course getting an airship with a telescope up in the air before that happens isn’t going to be likely but the sooner the process is started the better.

Glonets M Satellite

Kosmos-2499 Most Likely Isn’t Some Anti-Satellite Weapons Platform.

The Outer Space Treaty, which has been signed and ratified by over a hundred countries, declares that space should be a peaceful domain, free of weapons and violence. There are numerous reasons for this however the most critical of these is avoiding the horrendous plague that is Kessler syndrome, the point at which our near earth orbits are so littered with space junk that launching anything becomes next to impossible. At the same time however the lack of an overt weapons capability in space leads to all sorts of whacky theories about military operations in space, fuelled by the lack of public data on classified missions. The latest of which is the mysterious Kosmos-2499 satellite which some are theorizing is Russia’s latest anti-satellite weapon.

Glonets M Satellite

Kosmos-2499 attracted the attention of numerous conspiracy theorists due to it’s semi-mysterious launch. Quite often classified payloads are launched alongside regular ones in order to hide their true nature and this was the case with Kosmos-2499, launching with 3 other communications satellites (Kosmos-2496~2498). It was initially tracked as space debris since the official launch manifest only listed 3 payloads, however shortly after Roscosmos confirmed that 4 satellites were launched on that particular rocket. This makes it an interesting, although not particularly unusual, launch but its behaviour following launch is what really got the crazies whipped up.

It changed it’s orbit.

Satellites don’t typically change their orbit very much so when one does it often becomes a target of interest for stargazers. The X-37B is probably the most notable example of a satellite that was able to do this which was also a military craft although it’s orbit meant that, should it have any anti-satellite capabilities, it wouldn’t have the opportunity to use them. Kosmos-2499 is in a similar position however it was in a position to rendezvous with 2 pieces of space debris, namely the remnants of a previous launch vehicle and it’s own booster. This has then led to a flurry of speculation that Kosmos-2499 has satellite-killing capabilities ranging from things like a pellet gun to grappling arms that can detach solar panels. All things considered I think that’s a pretty unlikely scenario and the satellite’s purpose is likely a lot more mundane.

The other satellites launched alongside Kosmos-2499 were pretty small in stature, coming in at about 250kg each. It’s then highly likely that Kosmos-2499 doesn’t exceed this by much and so the capabilities that they can integrate into it a pretty limited. Also when you consider that it’s likely carrying with it a ton of propellant in order to complete these orbital transitions, including the approaches, then you’re even further limited in what kind of payload you can bring along for the ride. Most likely then Kosmos-2499 is a platform for Russia to test close approaches to other objects on orbit (I’d hazard a guess in an automated fashion) with a view to integrate such technology into future projects.

Whilst I sometimes enjoy letting the conspiracy nut part of my brain run amok on these things the truth of the matter is usually far more mundane than we’d think it to be. Doing things in space is awfully difficult and building in radical capabilities like the ones people are talking about really isn’t that feasible, or even sensible. Indeed the best counters to a military presence in space are most often ground based things that can be done far cheaper and with a lot less hassle than trying to create some kind of satellite killing space robot. Kosmos-2499 might be a bit mysterious but I doubt it’s purpose is that exotic.

Supercritical CO2 Extraction

Life Without Water.

All life as we know it has one basic need: water. The amount of water required to sustain life is a highly variable thing, from creatures that live out their whole lives in our oceans to others who can survive for months at a time without a single drop of water. However it would be short sighted of us to think that water was the be all and end all of all life in our universe as such broad assumptions have rarely panned out to be true under sustained scrutiny. That does leave us with the rather puzzling question of what environments and factors are required to give rise to life, something we don’t have a good answer to since we haven’t yet created life ourselves. We can study how some of the known biological processes function in other environments and whether that might be a viable place for life to arise.

Supercritical CO2 Extraction

Researchers at the Washington State University have been investigating the possibility of fluids that could potentially take the place of water in life on other planets. Water has a lot of properties that make it conducive to producing life (as we know it) like dissolving minerals, forming bonds and so on. The theory goes that should a liquid have similar properties to that of water then, potentially, an environment rich in said substance could give rise to life that uses that liquid as its base rather than water. Of course finding something with those exact properties is a tricky endeavour but these researchers may have stumbled onto an unlikely candidate.

Most people are familiar with the triple point of substances, the point where a slight change in pressure or temperature can change it from any of its one three states (solid, liquid, gas) instantly. Above there however there’s another transition called the supercritical point where the properties of the gaseous and liquid phases of the substance converge producing a supercritical fluid. For carbon dioxide this results in a substance that behaves like a gas with the density of its liquid form, a rather peculiar state of matter. It’s this form of carbon dioxide that the researchers believe could replace water as the fluid of life elsewhere, potentially life that’s even more efficient than what we find here.

Specifically they looked at how enzymes behaved in supercritical CO2 and found that they were far more stable than the same ones that they had residing in water. Additionally the enzymes became far more selective about the molecules that they bound to, making the overall process far more efficient than it otherwise would have been. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this was that they found organisms were highly tolerant of this kind of fluid as several bacteria and their enzymes were found to be present in the fluid. Whilst this isn’t definitive proof for life being able to use supercritical CO2 as a replacement for water it does lend credence to the idea that life could arise in places where water is absent.

Of course whether that life would look like anything we’d recognise is something that we won’t really know for a long time to come. An atmosphere of supercritical C02 would likely be an extremely hostile place to our kind of life, more akin to Venus than our comfortable Earth, making exploration quite difficult. Still this idea greatly expands our concept of what life might be and what might give rise to it, something which has had an incredibly inward view for far too long. I have little doubt that one day we’ll find life not as we know it, I’m just not sure if we’ll know it when we see it.

Rosetta Philae Lander

10 Years in the Making: Rosetta’s Philae Lander Touches Down.

Comets are relics of an era that has long since passed. They formed in the same accretion disk that gave birth to our Earth, Sun and the rest of the solar system but managed to avoid being subsumed into a larger celestial body. This, along with the amazing show they put on whenever they come close to the Sun, makes them objects of particular interest to star gazers and scientists alike. However few craft have studied them as their highly elliptical orbits make it incredibly difficult to do anything more than a flyby. That is, of course, unless you’re the ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft which just made history by deploying its Philae lander to the surface of the Churyumov–Gerasimenko 67P comet.

Rosetta Philae Lander

Many would have heard about the Rosetta craft recently as it was the first craft to ever enter an orbit around a comet which was achieved back in August. However few would know that it’s been on that journey for over 10 years as the Rosetta craft was launched in March of 2004. Since then it’s been slowly making it’s way to rendezvous with 67P, using multiple gravity assists to give it the velocity it needed to match the comet’s speed. Once it arrived at the comet it began imaging its surface in incredible detail, searching for a landing site for it’s attached Philae lander. In the early hours of this morning the Philae lander detacted from its parent craft and began its descent down to the surface and shortly after we received confirmation that it had touched down successfully.

It’s not all good news unfortunately as whilst the telemetry indicates that the lander did make it to the surface the anchoring harpoons that are on it’s feet did not fire. This causes two problems, the first (and most troubling) of these is that the lander is not securely fixed to the comet’s surface. In the minuscule gravity of the comet the lander weighs about 1 gram, meaning any out gassing from the comet could flip the craft over, or worse, send it tumbling out into space. Additionally those harpoons also contained instruments for measuring surface density, a lesser issue but still a blow to the project all the same. The ESA is currently investigating the reasons behind this and might refire them to ensure that the lander doesn’t get blow away.

Firing the harpoons again is risky but the people behind the Rosetta program have never been one to shy away from potentially mission ending decisions. Back in 2007 they scheduled an incredibly low altitude pass by Mars, a mere 250KM above its surface, in order to correct its trajectory to be closer to 67P. The trouble with this though was Rosetta couldn’t use its solar panels during this manoeuvre due to it being in the shadow of Mars, forcing it to power down for the duration. The batteries on the craft were not designed with this purpose in mind however and so this trajectory correction was dubbed The Billion Euro Gamble which, thankfully, paid off.

Rosetta and Philae both carry with them a host of tools designed to analyse the make up of the 67P comet including spectrometers, thermal imagers and radio/microwave based devices. The original spacecraft design was far more ambitious, including such things a sample return mission ala Hayabusa, however whilst it might not be as lofty a mission as it once was it’s still highly capable of giving us a detailed picture of what makes up this comet. This will then give us incredible insight into the early stages of our solar system and how it evolved into what it is today.

Hopefully the harpoon issues will get sorted out in short order and the Philae lander can continue its work without the possibility of it getting blown out into the depths of space. Rosetta’s mission is slated to continue through to the end of next year, just after 67P buzzes passed us on its journey back out to the edges of our solar system. Like all good space missions there’s potential for it to go even longer and here’s hoping that Rosetta and Philae will continue to deliver long past their used by date.