ESA Rosetta mission planners have selected November 12th, one day later than initially planned, for the historic landing of Philae on a comet’s surface. The landing on 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko will be especially challenging for the washing machine-sized lander. While mission scientists consider their choice of comet for the mission to be an incredibly good one for scientific investigation and discovery, the irregular shape and rugged terrain also make for a risky landing. The whole landing is not unlike the challenge one faces in shooting a moving target in a carnival arcade game; however, this moving target is 20 kilometers below and it is also rotating.
At 8:35 GMT (3:35 AM EST), the landing sequence will begin with release of Philae by Rosetta at an altitude of 20 kilometers above the comet. The expected time of touchdown is seven hours later – 15:35 GMT (10:35 AM EST). During the descent, Philae’s ROLIS camera will take a continuous series of photos. The comet will complete more than half a rotation during the descent; comet P67’s rotation rate is 12.4 hours. The landing site will actually be on the opposite side of the comet when Philae is released and will rotate around, and if all goes as planned, meet Philae at landing site J.
Before November 12th, mission planners will maintain the option of landing at Site C. If the alternate site is chosen, the descent will begin at 13:04 GMT also on November 12 but from an altitude of 12.5 kilometers, a 4 hour descent time.
Rosetta will eject Philae with an initial velocity of approximately 2 1/2 kilometers per hour. Because the comet is so small, its gravity will add little additional speed to Philae as it falls to the surface. Philae is essentially on a ballistic trajectory and does not have any means to adjust its path.
The actions taken by Philae’s onboard computer begin only seconds from touchdown. It has a landing propulsion system but unlike conventional systems that slow down the vehicle for soft landing, Philae’s is designed to push the lander snugly onto the comet surface. There is no guarantee that Philae will land on a flat horizontal surface. A slope is probably more likely and the rocket will force the small lander’s three legs onto the slope.
Landing harpoons will be fired that are attached to cables that will be pulled in to also help Philae return upright and attach to the surface. Philae could actually bounce up or topple over if the rocket system and harpoons fail to do their job.
However, under each of the three foot pads, there are ice screws that will attempt to drill and secure Philae to the surface. This will depend on the harpoons and/or rockets functioning as planned, otherwise the action of the drills could experience resistance from hard ground and simply push the lander up rather than secure it down. Philae also has a on-board gyro to maintain its attitude during descent, and an impact dampener on the neck of the vehicle which attaches the main body to the landing struts.
Ten landing sites were picked, then down-selected to five, and then finally on September 15th, they selected Site J on the head of the smaller lobe – the head of the rubber duck, with site C as a backup. Uncertainty in the release and the trajectory of the descent to the comet’s surface means that the planners needed to find a square kilometer area for landing. But comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko simply offered no site with that much flat area clear of cliffs and boulders. Philae will be released to land at Site J which offers some smooth terrain but only about a quarter of the area needed to assure a safe landing. Philae could end up landing on the edge of a cliff or atop a large boulder and topple over.
The Rosetta ground control team will have no means of controlling and adjusting Philae during the descent. This is how it had to be because the light travel time for telecommunications from the spacecraft to Earth does not permit real-time control. The execution time and the command sequence will be delivered to Rosetta days before the November 12th landing. And ground control must maneuver Rosetta with Philae still attached to an exact point in space where the release of Philae must take place. Any inaccuracy in the initial release point will be translated all the way down to the surface and Philae would land some undesired distance away from Site J. However, ground controllers have a month and a half to practice simulations of the landing many times over with a model of the comet’s nucleus. With practice and more observational data between now and the landing, the initial conditions and model of the comet in the computer simulation will improve and raise the likelihood of a close landing to Site J.
Previous Universe Today articles on Rosetta’s Philae: