Animation Caption: Possible landing sites on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The model shows the illumination of the comets surface and regions under landing site consideration for the Philae lander on board ESA’s Rosetta spececraft . Credit: CNES
“The race is on” to find a safe and scientifically interesting landing site for the Philae lander piggybacked on ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft as it swoops in ever closer to the heavily cratered Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko since arriving two weeks ago after a decade long chase of 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles).
Rosetta made history by becoming the first ever probe from Earth to orbit a comet upon arrival on Aug. 6, 2014.
The probe discovered an utterly alien and bizarre icy wanderer that science team member Mark McCaughrean, of ESA’s Science Directorate, delightedly calls a ‘Scientific Disneyland.’
“It’s just astonishing,” he said during a live ESA webcast of the Aug. 6 arrival event.
Now, another audacious and history making event is on tap – Landing on the comet!
To enable a safe landing, Rosetta is moving in closer to the comet to gather higher resolution imaging and spectroscopic data. When Rosetta arrived on Aug. 6, it was initially orbiting at a distance of about 100 km (62 miles). As of today, carefully timed thruster firings have brought it to within about 80 km distance. And it will get far closer.
Right now a top priority task for the science and engineering team leading Rosetta is “Finding a landing strip” for the Philae comet lander.
Philae’s landing on comet 67P is currently scheduled for Nov. 11, 2014. The 100 kg lander is equipped with 10 science instruments
“The challenge ahead is to map the surface and find a landing strip,” said Andrea Accomazzo, ESA Rosetta Spacecraft Operations Manager, at the Aug. 6 ESA webcast.
The team responsibility for choosing the candidate sites comprises “the Landing Site Selection Group (LSSG), which comprises engineers and scientists from Philae’s Science, Operations and Navigation Centre (SONC) at CNES, the Lander Control Centre (LCC) at DLR, scientists representing the Philae Lander instruments, and supported by the ESA Rosetta team, which includes representatives from science, operations and flight dynamics,” according to an ESA statement.
This week the team is intensively combing through a preliminary list of 10 potential landing sites.
Over the weekend they will whittle the list down to five candidate landing sites for continued detailed analysis.
ESA will announce the Top 5 landing site candidates on Monday, Aug. 25.
The decision rests on the results of Rosetta’s ongoing global mapping campaign, including high resolution imaging from the OSIRIS and NAVCAM cameras and further observations from the other science instruments, especially MIRO, VIRTIS, ALICE, GIADA and ROSINA.
The surface criteria for a suitable landing site include day time landing illumination, a balance between day and night to allow the solar panels to recharge the batteries, avoiding steep slopes, large boulders and deep crevasses so it doesn’t topple over.
Of course the team also must consider the comet’s rotation period (12.4 hours) and axis of rotation (see animation at top). Sites near the equator offering roughly equal periods of day and night may be preferred.
The selection of the primary landing site is slated for mid-October after consultation between ESA and the lander team on a “Go/No Go” decision.
The three-legged lander will fire two harpoons and use ice screws to anchor itself to the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) wide comet’s surface. Philae will collect stereo and panoramic images and also drill 23 centimeters into and sample its incredibly varied surface.
Read an Italian language version of this story by my imaging partner Marco Di Lorenzo – here
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.