Saturday, November 18, 2017
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Robot Lands on Comet: A Sci-Fi Dream Come True

Philae was supposed to secure itself to the comet using harpoons. Photo courtesy of the ESA.
Philae was supposed to secure itself to the comet using harpoons that malfunctioned during landing. Photo courtesy of the European Space Agency.

After spending 10 years traveling through space, the robot Philae safely landed on Comet 67P. That act alone is historic: this is a first time humans have ever soft landed anything on a comet. It’s was tricky encounter, partly because Philae cannot be steered. It was all down to releasing Philae from the orbiter, Rosetta, at the right time.

Philae’s malfunctioning harpoons continue to cause concerns. Without them, the robot might just drift away from the comet due to it’s weak gravitational forces. But, for the time being, Philae appears to have safely landed. Hopefully, it can gather data about the composition of the comet and transmit the information back to earth.

Weighing in at 26 pounds, Philae is powered by solar cells that cover the subsystem’s carbon fiber housing. Philae carries a variety of instruments onboard, including:

– An Alpha X-ray Spectrometer will be lowered to just a few inches about the ground, to study the composition of the soil on the surface of the comet;
– The ÇIVA system, which includes of six micro-cameras to take panoramic pictures;
– The Comet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radiowave Transmission, which will study how radio waves change as they pass through the nucleus of the comet to provide data on its tomography and dialectric properties;
– Two gas analysers;
– The Multi-Purpose Sensors for Surface and Subsurface Science, which will use a sensory array on Philae’s anchor to measure the density, thermal, and mechanical properties of the comet’s surface;
– A CCD camera, called the Rosetta Lander Imaging System, which captured images of the descent and will now take pictures of sampling areas;
– The Rosetta Lander Magnetometer and Plasma Monitor, which will gather data on magnetic fields and solar-wind;
– The Sample and Distribution Device, which drill into the comet, take samples and then place them under a microscope or in ovens for analysis;
– The Surface Electrical Sounding and Acoustic Monitoring Experiments, which is designed to study sound, dust and electricity.

Expect lots of updates from Philae this week, as it conducts experiments. The information gleaned will not only provide insight into comets, it may also give humanity a better sense of what the earth was like in its early state. It may, in fact, tell us a lot about our own origins.

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