ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft has had quite a remarkable journey since it was launched in 2004. After traveling throughout the solar system for a decade, Rosetta finally met up with its target, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, in August. In the time that has followed since that rendezvous, Rosetta has been observing the comet and preparing to launch Philae: a 100 kg (220 lb) robotic lander that will be the first human instrument to make a soft landing on a comet’s nucleus. This historic event has been scheduled for November 12.
Rosetta will launch Philae early Wednesday morning. It will take a gut-wrenching seven hours for the lander to travel 22.5 km to 67P/C-G and land at Agilkia, the targeted area on the head of the comet’s nucleus. After Philae lands, it will deploy harpoons that will hold it securely to the comet’s surface. Next, it will make observations and get oriented before sending the information back to the Rosetta orbiter, which will then be relayed back to Earth. It takes nearly half an hour for information to be received from Rosetta, so confirmation of the lander’s success is expected to come in around 11:00 am EST.
Philae contains a suite of ten instruments that will sample the nucleus, generating a great deal of data about its composition and structure. The data could reveal what role comets may have played in the presence of water on Earth, as well as any influence comets may have had on early life.
Slooh Community Observatory will be doing a live webcast discussing Philae’s landing beginning at 2:00 pm EST on November 12. The event will be hosted by Slooh astronomer Bob Berman alongside Geoff Fox, in addition to many guests, including ESA scientists from the Rosetta mission. Use #SloohRosetta on social media to join in the conversation.
The comet is extremely dim and will not be visible with amateur telescopes even when it nears the sun next August. Slooh’s observatory in the Canary Islands will be providing real-time footage of 67P/C-G during the webcast.
“This is the most exciting spacecraft mission since Cassini reached Saturn a decade ago,” Berman said in a press release. “Comet 67P is heading toward its encounter with the Sun next summer, and as it does its ices will sublimate, pebbles and dust will be released — some as dramatic geysers from the comet’s surface –, and now we have a spacecraft right there sending us pictures and videos of the whole thing. It’s unbelievable — and this makes the attempted landing on its surface critically important, and nail-bitingly perilous.”