Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Will Philae Successfully Land on Comet? Thruster Trouble Heightens Drama

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Will Philae Successfully Land on Comet? Thruster Trouble Heightens Drama

Article excerpt

A boxy lander dubbed Philae is on its way to harpoon a comet in a historic attempt to become the first spacecraft to land on a comet's rugged surface.

The lander's mother ship, the European Space Agency's Rosetta comet orbiter, released Philae at 3:35 a.m. ET for a painstakingly slow descent to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as the orbiter passed within 14 miles of the comet's surface. Touchdown is expected to occur some seven hours later.

The drama of the attempt has been heightened by the apparent loss of a thruster on top of the craft. It was designed to reduce any tendency the craft might have to bounce as it touches down on the surface of the comet, a gravitational weakling. The thruster also would be used to counteract the recoil when the craft's harpoons are shot into the surface at some 160 miles an hour. The harpoons represent the craft's ultimate anchors.

"We will need some luck not to land on a boulder or a steep slope," said Stephan Ulamec, Philae lander manager at the DLR German Aerospace Center, via the mission's blog.

The lander is bound for a relatively flat patch on the comet, whose profile resembles a child's rubber ducky. The site is named Agilkia, for the island hosting an ancient Egyptian temple complex that is the lander's namesake.

The temple complex has an obelisk that, along with the Rosetta stone, provided the keys to translating Egyptian hieroglyphics. Solar system scientists anticipate Rosetta and Philae providing a similar service in understanding comets - icy dirt balls that along with asteroids are the construction debris left from the era when planets formed some 4.6 billion years ago.

Researchers have deposited an object on a comet before, but it was a "dumb" projectile designed to smack into comet Tempel 1 during NASA's Deep Impact mission. As the projectile's mother ship flew by the comet, it released the projectile on July 4, 2005, then analyzed the debris that the collision kicked up as a way to gather information on the comet's subsurface composition.

Delivering Philae to the comet's surface requires all the finesse of depositing a pro-football linebacker on a trampoline without a bounce. …

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