Concerns over ESA’s Data Release Policy Amidst Rosetta Comet Landing

This week, history was made as the Rosetta mission’s Philae lander touched down on the surface of 67P/Churnyumov-Gerasimenko. Days before this momentous event took place, the science team presented some staggering pictures of the comet at a planetary conference in Tucson, Arizona, where guests were treated to the first color images taken by the spacecraft’s high-resolution camera.

Unfortunately for millions of space enthusiasts around the world, none of these exciting images were released to the public. In addition, much of the images taken of the comet over the past few months as Rosetta closed in on it have similarly not been released. This has led to demands for more openness, which in turn has focused attention on ESA’s image and data release policy.

Allowing scientists to withhold data for some period of time is not uncommon in planetary science. According to Jim Green, the director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, a 6-month grace period is typical for principal investigator-led spacecraft. However, NASA headquarters can also insist that the principal investigator release data for key media events.

This has certainly been the case where the Curiosity and other Mars rover missions were concerned, not to mention the Cassini-Huygens mission. On many occasions, NASA chose to release images to the public almost immediately after they were obtained.

However, ESA has a different structure than NASA. It relies much more on contributions from member-states, whereas NASA pays for most of its instruments directly. Rosetta’s main mission camera – the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) – was developed by a consortium of institutes led by the Max-Planck-Institute for Solar System Research. As a result, ESA has less control over how information obtained by this specific camera is disseminated.

The surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as viewed at a 10-kilometer distance by navigation cameras. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam
The surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as viewed at a 10-kilometer distance by navigation cameras. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NavCam

Journalist Eric Hand recently covered this imagery release dilemma in an article in Science, revealing that even scientists at Darmstadt, Germany this week — the location of ESA’s mission control for Philae’s landing — had not seen the science images that were being shared at the Planetary Science conference. Project scientist Matt Taylor was reduced to learning about the new results by looking at Twitter feeds on his phone.

Hand quoted Taylor as saying the decision when to publicly release images is a “tightrope” walk. And Hand also said some “ESA officials are worried that the principal investigators for the spacecraft’s 11 instruments are not releasing enough information, and many members of the international community feel the same way.”

Back in July, ESA responded to these calls for more information with a press release, in which they claimed that an “open-data” policy is not the norm for either ESA or NASA. Responding to the examples of the Mars rovers and Cassini-Huygens, which have been cited by critics for more openness, ESA countered with the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray observatory, the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, and even some NASA Mars orbiters.

In these cases, they claimed, the data obtained was subject to a “proprietary period”, which also pertains to data from ESA’s Mars Express, XMM-Newton, and Rosetta missions. This period, they said, is typically 6-12 months, and “gives exclusive access to the scientists who built the instruments or to scientists who made a winning proposal to make certain observations.”

Nevertheless, there is still some criticism by those who think that releasing more images would be a positive gesture and not compromise any ESA scientist’s ability to conduct research.

As space blogger Daniel Fischer said in response to the ESA press release, “Who is writing scientific papers already about the distant nucleus that is just turning into a shape? And on the weekly schedule a sampling of these images is coming out anyway, with a few days delay… Presenting the approach images, say, one per day and with only hours delay would thus not endanger any priorities but instead give the eager public a unique chance to ‘join the ride’, just as they can with Cassini or the Mars rovers.”

The Rosetta Spacecraft's instruments. Image Credit: ESA
The Rosetta Spacecraft’s instruments. Image Credit: ESA

In particular, a lot of criticism has been focused on the OSIRIS camera team, led by principal investigator Holger Sierks. Days before the Philae Lander put down on the comet, Stuart Atkinson – an amateur astronomer, space educator and image processor – wrote the following on his space blog Cumbrian Sky:

[The OSIRIS team’s] attitude towards the public, the media, and ESA itself has been one of arrogant contempt, and I have no doubt at all that their selfish behaviour has damaged the mission and the reputation and public image ESA. Their initial arguments that they had to keep images back to allow them to do their research no longer hold up now. They must have taken many hundreds of jaw droppingly detailed images by now, the images everyone has been looking forward to ever since ROSETTA launched a decade ago, so could easily release dozens of images which pose no risk to their work or careers, but they have released only a handful, and those have been the least-detailed, least-remarkable images they could find.

However, in Hand’s Science article, Sierks said that he feels the OSIRIS team has already provided a fair amount of data to the public. Currently, about one image is released a week –  a rate that seems to Sierks to be more than adequate given that they are superior to anything before seen in terms of comet research.

Furthermore, Sierks claimed that other researchers, unaffiliated with the Rosetta team, have submitted papers based on these released images, while his team has been consumed with the daily task of planning the mission. After working on OSIRIS since 1997, Sierks feels that his team should get the first shot at using the data.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image Credit: ESA
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image Credit: ESA

This echoes ESA’s July press release, which expressed support for their science teams to have first-crack any data obtained by their instruments. “Because no-one has ever been to 67P/C-G before,” it stated, “each new piece of data from Rosetta has the potential for a scientific discovery. It’s only fair that the instrument science teams have the first chance to make and assess those discoveries.”

The same press release also defended ESA’s decision not to release information from the navigation cameras more freely – which they do have control over. Citing overlap, they indicated that they want to “avoid undermining the priority of the OSIRIS team.”

Prior to Rosetta’s launch in 2004, an embargo of 6 months was set for all the instrument teams. ESA scientists have pointed out that mission documents also stipulate that instrument teams provide “adequate support” to ESA management in its communication efforts.

Mark McCaughrean, an ESA senior science adviser at ESTEC, is one official that believes these support requirements are not being met. He was quoted by Eric Hand in Science as saying, “I believe that [the OSIRIS camera team’s support] has by no means been adequate, and they believe it has,” he says. “But they hold the images, and it’s a completely asymmetric relationship.”

Luckily, ESA has released images of the surface of 67P and what it looked like for the Philae Lander and as it made its descent towards the comet. Additionally, stunning imagery from Rosetta’s navigation camera were recently released. In the coming days and weeks, we can certainly hope that plenty of more interesting images and exciting finds will be coming, courtesy of the Rosetta mission and its many contributors.

Further Reading: Science Mag, NASA, ESA

Philae Ready to Take Flying Leap to Historic Comet Landing (Coverage Information)

We are now in the final hours before Rosetta’s Philae lander is released to attempt a first-ever landing on a comet. At 9:03 GMT (1:03 AM PST) on Wednesday, November 12, 2014, Philae will be released and directed towards the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. 7 hours later, the lander will touch down.

Below you’ll find a timeline of events, info on how to watch the landing, and an overview of how the landing will (hopefully) work.

In human affairs, we build contingencies for missteps, failures. With spacecraft, engineers try to eliminate all single point failures and likewise have contingency plans. The landing of a spacecraft, be it on Mars, Earth, or the Moon, always involves unavoidable single point failures and points of no return, and with comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, Rosetta’s Philae lander is no exception.

Rosetta’s and Philae’s software and hardware must work near flawlessly to give Philae the best chance possible of landing safely. And even with flawless execution, it all depends on Philae’s intercepting a good landing spot on the surface. Philae’s trajectory is ballistic on this one way trip to a comet’s surface. It’s like a 1 mile per hour bullet. Once fired, it’s on its own, and for Philae, its trajectory could lead to a pristine flat step or it could be crevasse, ledge, or sharp rock.

Live European Space Agency Coverage also Main Page Live Feed

Watch ESA’s live feed:

The accuracy of the landing is critical but it has left a 1 square kilometer of uncertainty. For this reason, engineers and scientists had to survey the whole surface for the most mild features. Comet 67P has few areas that are not extreme in one way or another. Site J, now called Agilkia, is one such site.

When first announced in late September, the time of release was 08:35 GMT (12:35 AM PST). Now the time is 9:03 GMT. The engineers and computer scientists have had six weeks to further refine their trajectory. It’s a complicated calculation that has required running the computer simulation of the descent backwards. Backwards because they can set a landing time then run Philae backwards to the moment of release. The solution is not just one but many, thousands or millions if you want to look in such detail. With each release point, the engineers had to determine how, or if, Rosetta could be navigated to that coordinate point in space and time.

Arrival time of the radio signal with landing status: 16:30 GMT

Rosetta/Philae at 500 million km [320 million miles], 28.5 minutes light time

Arrival of First Images: 06:00 GMT, November 13, 2014

The gravity field of the comet is so weak, it is primarily the initial velocity from Rosetta that delivers Philae to the surface. But the gravity is there and because of the chaotic shape and unknown (as yet) mass distribution inside, the gravity will make Philae move like a major league knuckleball wobbling to the plate and a batter. Furthermore, the comet during the  seven hour trip will make half a rotation. The landing site will not be in site when Philae is released.

And as Philae is on final approach, it will use a small rocket not to slow down but rather thrust it at the comet, landing harpoons will be fired, foot screws will try to burrow into the comet, and everyone on Earth will wait several minutes for a message to be relayed from Philae to Rosetta to the Deep Space Network (DSN) antennas on Earth. Philae will be on its own as soon as it leaves Rosetta and its fate is a few hours away.

Why travel to a comet? Comets represent primordial material leftover from the formation of the solar system. Because cometary bodies were formed and remained at a distance from the heat of the sun, the materials have remained nearly unchanged since formation, ~4.5 billion years ago. By looking at Rosetta’s comet, 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, scientists will gain the best yet measurements of a comet’s chemical makeup, its internal structure created during formation, and the dynamics of the comet as it approaches the warmth of the Sun. Theories propose that comets impacting on Earth delivered most of the water of our oceans. If correct, then we are not just made of star-stuff, as Carl Sagan proclaimed, we are made of comet stuff, too. Comets may also have delivered the raw organic materials needed to start the formation of life on Earth.

Besides the ESA live feeds, one can take a peek at NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) at work to see which telescopes are communicating with Rosetta. JPL’s webcast can watched below:



Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Past Universe Today Articles on the Rosetta Mission:

A Comet’s Tale – Rosetta’s Philae, Five Days from Touchdown
Stinky! Rosetta’s Comet Smells Like Rotten Eggs And Ammonia
Why Watch ESA Rosetta’s Movie ‘Ambition’? Because We Want to Know What is Possible
Rosetta’s Philae Lander: A Swiss Army Knife of Scientific Instruments
ESA’s Rosetta Mission sets November 12th as the Landing Date for Philae
Creepy Comet Looms In The Background Of Newest Philae Spacecraft Selfie
How Do You Land on a Comet? Very Carefully.
How Rosetta Will Send Philae Lander To Comet’s Surface (Plus, Landing Site Contest!)
Spider-Like Spacecraft Aims To Touch A Comet Next Year After Rosetta Reactivates
Rosetta’s Comet Springs Spectacular Leaks As It Gets Closer To The Sun
How Dust Lightens Up The ‘Dark Side’ Of Rosetta’s Comet
It’s Alive! Rosetta’s Comet Flares As It Approaches The Sun

References:

Why visit a comet, University of Leicester, Planetary Scientist explains

Comet’s Head Selected as Landing Site for Rosetta’s Historic Philae Lander

The ‘head’ of the bizarre comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has been selected as the primary landing site for the Rosetta spacecraft’s attached Philae lander, attempting mankind’s first ever landing on a comet in mid-November.

Scientists leading the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission announced the primary landing site at a media briefing today, Sept. 15, at ESA headquarters.

After weeks of detailed study and debate focused on balancing scientific interest with finding a ‘technically feasible’ and safe Philae touchdown site, the team chose a target dubbed Site J as the primary landing site from among a list of five initially selected sites, said Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager at the DLR German Aerospace Center, at the briefing.

“Site J is the primary landing site around the head of the comet,” Ulamec announced.

“Site C is the backup site on the body [near the bottom of the comet].”

“This was not an easy task. Site J is a mix of flat areas and rough terrain. It’s not a perfectly flat area. There is still risk with high slope areas.”

Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

He also made clear that there is still some landing uncertainty with the targeting of the lander onto the comet.

Site J is an intriguing region on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko that offers unique scientific potential, with hints of activity nearby, and minimum risk to the lander compared to the other candidate sites, according to ESA.

“As we have seen from recent close-up images, the comet is a beautiful but dramatic world – it is scientifically exciting, but its shape makes it operationally challenging,” says Ulamec.

“None of the candidate landing sites met all of the operational criteria at the 100% level, but Site J is clearly the best solution.”

Philae’s history-making landing on comet 67P is currently scheduled for around Nov. 11, 2014, and will be entirely automatic. The 100 kg lander is equipped with 10 science instruments.

“All of Rosetta’s instruments are supporting the landing site selection,” said Holger Sierks, principal investigator for Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany.

“Site J is just 500-600 meters away from some pits and an area of comet outgassing activity. They will become more active as we get closer to the sun.

The team is in a race against time to select a suitable landing zone quickly and develop the complex landing sequence since the comet warms up and the surface becomes ever more active as it swings in closer to the sun and makes the landing ever more hazardous.

Since the descent to the comet is passive it is only possible to predict that the landing point will place within a ‘landing ellipse’ typically a few hundred metres in size, the team elaborated.

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 20 to 30 centimeters into and sample its incredibly varied surface.

“We will make the first ever in situ analysis of a comet at this site, giving us an unparalleled insight into the composition, structure and evolution of a comet,” says Jean-Pierre Bibring, a lead lander scientist and principal investigator of the CIVA instrument at the IAS in Orsay, France.

“Site J in particular offers us the chance to analyse pristine material, characterise the properties of the nucleus, and study the processes that drive its activity.”

“It’s amazing how much we have learned so far.”

“We are in a true revolution of how we think Planets form and evolve,” Bibring elaborated at the briefing.

“We will make many types of scientific measurements of the comet from the surface. We will get a complete panoramic view of the comet on the macroscopic and microscopic scale.”

Rosetta is currently orbiting the comet from a distance of 30 km, said ESA Rosetta flight director Andrea Accomazzo. He said it will likely go even closer to 20 km and perhaps 10 km.

Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta's navigation camera on 2 September 2014 from a distance of 56 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been contrast enhanced to bring out details of the coma, especially of jets of dust emanating from the neck region. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 2 September 2014 from a distance of 56 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been contrast enhanced to bring out details of the coma, especially of jets of dust emanating from the neck region. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

“Now that we’re closer to the comet, continued science and mapping operations will help us improve the analysis of the primary and backup landing sites,” says ESA Rosetta flight director Andrea Accomazzo.

“Of course, we cannot predict the activity of the comet between now and landing, and on landing day itself. A sudden increase in activity could affect the position of Rosetta in its orbit at the moment of deployment and in turn the exact location where Philae will land, and that’s what makes this a risky operation.”

Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta's navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been rotated and contrast enhanced to bring out details. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been rotated and contrast enhanced to bring out details. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

The final landing site selections were made at a meeting being held this weekend on 13 and 14 September 2014 between the Rosetta Lander Team and the Rosetta orbiter team at CNES in Toulouse, France.

“No one has ever attempted to land on a comet before, so it is a real challenge,” says Fred Jansen, ESA Rosetta mission manager.

“The complicated ‘double’ structure of the comet has had a considerable impact on the overall risks related to landing, but they are risks worth taking to have the chance of making the first ever soft landing on a comet.”

Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander.   The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Enlarged insets below highlight 5 landing zones.  Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA  Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander. The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Enlarged insets below highlight 5 landing zones. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

How Do You Land on a Comet? Very Carefully.

ESA has announced that on September 15, the team from the Rosetta mission will reveal the landing site for the Philae lander. After traveling on a 10-year, 6.4 billion kilometer journey, Rosetta has been gently captured by comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, an oddly-shaped and mysterious two-lobed comet. Yet, how will the small Philea attempt the landing? Very carefully, because a second chance is not possible. Philae cannot pull up and try again.

In contrast to NASA’s Deep Impact mission which directed a high speed impactor onto the surface of comet Tempel 1, ESA’s Philae lander is designed to execute the first soft landing. The landing must be as gentle as any landing that a respectable bird might accomplish. Philae’s nominal landing speed is about 1.0 meter/sec, that is, 2.2 mph. But like the Deep Impact impactor, Philae is flying solo. Software onboard will function alone without assistance from ground control.

The circumstances surrounding this momentous event – the first landing on a comet – has quite an amazing history and geography. Philae is truly a European Union mission with the design distributed across Europe, spanning from Hungary to Finland to Spain, Ireland to Italy and including UK and Germany.

As is common, the project development spanned several years. A sample return mission was considered the next step after ESA’s Giotto mission that studied Halley’s Comet, but Rosetta evolved out of the cancelled NASA mission Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby (CRAF). ESA could not afford a sample return mission on its own, so Rosetta used the CRAF design but without sample return. Instead it would rendezvous and orbit a comet and include a lander.

Rosetta’s mission began on March 2, 2004 from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana and it now flies quietly alongside a comet 400 million kilometers from Earth. 67p is falling towards the Sun and perihelion will be on August 13, 2015.

Escape from Devil's Island, 14 Km off the coast from the Guiana Space Centre is no longer through the jungles of South America. For Rosetta, it was straight up, then eastward and then finally into a Solar orbit to catch 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Photo Credit: ESA)
Escape from Devil’s Island, 14 Km off the coast from the Guiana Space Centre is no longer through the jungles of South America. For Rosetta, it was straight up, then eastward and then finally into a Solar orbit to catch 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Photo Credit: ESA)
Illustration of Philae on a cometary surface. The actual surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is actually as dark as a barbecue briquette. (Credit: ESA)
Illustration of Philae on a cometary surface. The actual surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is actually as dark as a barbecue briquette. (Credit: ESA)
An illustration of the elements of the Philae landing dynamics. (Credit: Simulation of the Landing of Rosetta Philae on Comet 67P, M. Hilchenbach, et al., Max Planck Institute
An illustration of the elements of the Philae landing dynamics. (Credit: “Simulation of the Landing of Rosetta Philae on Comet 67P”, M. Hilchenbach, et al., Max Planck Institute)

The technology of Philae is 1990s technology. However, the landing mechanisms may not be much different if designed today. Consider that the 7 minutes of terror – Entry, Descent and Landing of the Mars Rovers (MER) was also accomplished with 1990s computer hardware and you can express some relief and assurance that such technology is up to the task of landing on a comet.

Illustration and Photo of Philae Pendulum Tests. The force of impact on the wall simulates the force due to descent velocity, comet's gravity and cold thrusters upon touchdown. (Credit: Simulation of the Landing of Rosetta Philae on Comet 67P, M. Hilchenbach, et al., Max Planck Institute)
Illustration and Photo of Philae Pendulum Tests. The force of impact on the wall simulates the force due to descent velocity, comet’s gravity and cold thrusters upon touchdown. (Credit: Simulation of the Landing of Rosetta Philae on Comet 67P, M. Hilchenbach, et al., Max Planck Institute)

How will the team make their choice of landing spots? The performance specifications of the lander and the mechanisms it can employ to attach to the surface sets definite constraints on the choice of landing location.

The landing mechanisms are: landing legs with ice screws, propulsion system and harpoons. The legs were designed with the intent of landing softly. The harpoons are designed to secure Philae to the surface. The gravity of the comet is so weak, Philae could bounce off the surface or roll over. The purpose of the harpoons — to be fired at the moment of contact — is to prevent bouncing off the surface or tipping over. The direction and strength of gravity at the landing site will not be absolutely known so there is the risk of roll over after landing, albeit very slowly. Tipping over is mitigated by screws under the footpads to penetrate the surface immediately after landing.

The Philae Lander anchoring harpoon with the integrated MUPUS-accelerometer and temperature sensor. (Credit: "Philae Lander Fact Sheet", ESA)
The Philae Lander anchoring harpoon with the integrated MUPUS-accelerometer and temperature sensor. (Credit: “Philae Lander Fact Sheet”, ESA)

Philae also has a flywheel for stabilization during descent and landing and a dampening system between the landing legs’ carriage and the probe’s body. The dampener is meant to make the landing inelastic — meaning no bouncing. However, there is a set limit to how much the probe’s body can tilt (or twist) upon surface contact. Any tilt will impose a rotating force on the probe which will need to be countered by the propulsion pushing down and the harpoons. Philae does not carry a stick of bubble gum or any duct tape, which have been known by Earthlings to come in handy in a pinch.

Clean Room photo of Philae with Principal Investigator Dr. Helmut Rosenbauer, Director at the Max-Planck-Institute for Aeronomy. Philae's mass is 100 kg including 21 kg of instrument payload It's dimensions are 1 × 1 × 0.8 meters  (3.3 × 3.3 × 2.6 ft) Photo Credit: Max Planck Institute, Filser)
Clean Room photo of Philae with Principal Investigator Dr. Helmut Rosenbauer, Director at the Max-Planck-Institute for Aeronomy. Philae’s mass is 100 kg including 21 kg of instrument payload It’s dimensions are 1 × 1 × 0.8 meters (3.3 × 3.3 × 2.6 ft) Photo Credit: Max Planck Institute, Filser)

The Philae design was actually developed with a different comet in mind, 46P/Wirtanen, which is smaller (~.5 to 1 mile) than 67P. So the speed at landing on the surface was nominally 0.5 m/sec, however, now with the larger 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the landing speed could be 2 or 3 times greater. In December 2002, there was an Ariane 5 launch failure, one month before launch of Rosetta and Philae to comet Wirtanen. Because of the necessary failure investigation, the launch was scrubbed and the only launch window to undertake the trajectory to Wirtanen was lost. The present comet 67P was then chosen. Mission engineers were aware of the mass difference and consequently had to modify Philae’s landing gear to withstand the greater forces upon landing on 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Philae illustration showing the landing feet ice screws and the two harpoons (blue), below the center pedestal (dampener) (Credit: ESA)
Philae illustration showing the landing feet ice screws and the two harpoons (blue), below the center pedestal (dampener) (Credit: ESA)

Knowing the comet’s gravity, rotation axis and period are critical. Rosetta mission planners are working feverishly to determine the direction of gravity at the possible landing sites.

Philae has a simple cold gas propulsion system and its purpose is not to slow down the descent, as we often imagine for landers, but rather to push the lander onto the surface. Rosetta will accurately push off Philae at the right time, speed and direction to reach the landing spot.

So imagine if you will that it is the mid-1990s and you are designing a lander. It must accomplish the landing on its own, without help from Earth — except for what is built into the mechanisms and software. Philae’s software operates on a simple computer chip in the Command, Data and Management System (CDMS) jointly developed and tested in Hungary – Institute for Particle and Nuclear Physics, Wigner Research Centre for Physics, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Germany – the Max Planck Institute. The Hungarian Institute also constructed the Power Subsystem (PSS) which is critical to Philae’s success. The PSS must produce and store power while enduring extremes in temperature and periods of no sunlight.

The computer processing power is about the same as that of a 1990s hand calculator, however, the chips used were radiation hardened to survive space conditions. Philae’s systems will be watching and making navigation corrections throughout the descent. Nothing fancy, this is a simple and straightforward execution with a modest control system on board. Nevertheless, it has everything necessary to accomplish the soft landing on a comet.

When studying the design, I first imagined that Philae would make a long descent and the comet would make a full rotation. But rather, Rosetta will be navigated to somewhere between 2 to 10 km above the comet surface then release Philae. Because of the comet’s odd shape, the probes could be 4 km above the surface at one time and then just 2 km at another, due to the rotation of the comet. The odd rotating shape means that the gravity field effecting the descent will be constantly changing. One might compare the effects of 67P’s gravity on Philae as similar to the motion of a well thrown knuckleball (e.g., Wakefield, Wilhelm). Catchers resort to using a larger catchers mitt and likewise, the landing zone (or ellipse) is 1 square kilometer, sizable considering 67P’s dimensions are 3.5 × 4 km (2.2 × 2.5 miles).

Five candidate landing sites on 67P as viewed from three perspectives. Down selection from 10 to 5 was announced August 25. The final selection is to be announced by September 14th for the landing scheduled on November 11th. (Photo Credit: ESA)
Five candidate landing sites on 67P as viewed from three perspectives. Down selection from 10 to 5 was announced August 25. The final selection is to be announced by September 14th for the landing scheduled on November 11th. (Photo Credit: ESA)

There is a also a modest tug of war going on between the mission planners and the researchers. For any mission that lands on a surface, for example, landers on Mars, there is the need to weigh safety against the return on investment. For the latter, the return is scientific return: measurements and observations of the most incredibly fascinating places you can imagine. For Philae, it gets one chance to land and one location to study, in contrast to the Mars Rovers which have traversed diverse terrain away from its landing site.

If anyone recalls the lander simulations that one could play on a computer or even a hand calculator, the simulations for Philae are a bit more challenging. Mission planners must have a good estimate of the comet’s gravity field, as strange as it is. They must know the rotation axis and rate of the comet accurately, and also know the relative position of Rosetta and Philae at the beginning of the descent.

The steps for the landing are: 1) release Philae towards the comet, 2) Descent: the comet is rotating and its gravity is weirdly pulling on the little probe during descent. Sounds like fun and one can be certain that mission planners are loving it. The descent that is undertaken is likely to be about 2 hours long. With a rotation period of 12.7 hours, the comet will rotate about 20%. But wait, there’s more. Rosetta is moving too and its orbital motion will be carried by Philae. This motion will offset the comet’s rotation to some degree.

Artist's illustration of Philae upon touchdown. The lander is capable of landing on up to 30% slopes.  (Credits: ESA)
Artist’s illustration of Philae upon touchdown. The lander is capable of landing on up to 30% slopes. (Credits: ESA)

3) Touchdown is when the CDMS will earn its badge of honor. Upon touchdown, the control system will  fire the cold thrusters to push Philae snugly onto the surface. At the same time, the two harpoons will be fired to, hopefully, pierce and latch onto the cometary surface. To further prevent bounce or tipping, the dampener will absorb energy of the touchdown. Philae is likely to have some transverse velocity on touchdown and this will translate into a torque and a tipping action which the Harpoons and cold thrusters will reckon with.

So one can imagine that all the variables and possibilities have been considered by the mission planners. But not so fast. This is Humanity’s first visit to the surface of a comet. The name Rosetta and Philae were chosen because comets are like a Rosetta Stone that is revealing the secrets of our origins – the early formation of the planets. Carl Sagan explained that we are all made of star stuff but more recently, about 4.3 billion years ago, it was comet stuff that may have delivered the building blocks of life and possibly even the water that fills our oceans. We do not know for certain but studying, landing upon, touching and analyzing 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko will increase our understanding of the link between comets and the Earth.

Journey of the Rosetta probe to a comet. Linked to ESA animated illustration of the 10 year journey. (Credit: ESA)
The Journey of the Rosetta probe to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image, linked to the ESA animation of the 10 year journey. (Credit: ESA)

Rosetta Now Up Close to Comet 67P – Snapping Mapping Mosaics for Momentous Philae Landing

Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been contrast enhanced to bring out details. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across.
Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
See rotated version and 4 individual images below[/caption]

ESA’s Rosetta orbiter has now moved in so close to its comet quarry that the primordial body overwhelms the screen, and thus its snapping mapping mosaics to capture the complete scene of the bizarre world so it can find the most suitable spot for the momentous Philae landing – upcoming in mid-November.

In fact Rosetta has ‘drawn and quartered’ the comet to collect high resolution views of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko with the navcam camera on Sunday, August 31.

The navcam quartet has just been posted to the Rosetta portal today, Monday, September 1, 2014. ESA invited readers to create global photo mosaics.

See above our four frame photo mosaic of navcam images Rosetta took on Aug. 31.

The purpose of taking the images as well as spectra and physical measurements up close is to find a ‘technically feasible’ Philae touchdown site that is both safe and scientifically interesting.

Below is the Rosetta teams four image navcam montage, arranged individually in a 2 x 2 raster.

Four-image montage comprising images taken by Rosetta's navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
Four-image montage comprising images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

The navcam image raster sequence was taken from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P.

“Roughly one quarter of the comet is seen in the corner of each of the four images. The four images are taken over an approximately 20 minute period, meaning that there is some motion of the spacecraft and rotation of the comet between the images. As a result, making a clean mosaic out of the four images is not simple,” according to ESA’s Rosetta blog.

As I reported here last week, the ‘Top 5’ landing site candidates have been chosen for the Rosetta orbiters piggybacked Philae lander for humankind’s first attempt to land on a comet.

The potential touchdown sites were announced on Aug. 25, based on a thorough analysis of high resolution measurements collected by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft over the prior weeks since it arrived at the pockmarked Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Aug. 6, 2014.

See our montage of the ‘Top 5’ landing sites below.

Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander.   The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Enlarged insets below highlight 5 landing zones.  Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA  Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander. The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Enlarged insets below highlight 5 landing zones. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Rosetta is a mission of many firsts, including history’s first ever attempt to orbit a comet for long term study.

Philae’s history making landing on comet 67P is currently scheduled for around Nov. 11, 2014, and will be entirely automatic. The 100 kg lander is equipped with 10 science instruments.

The new images released today are the best taken so far by the Navcam camera. The probes OSIRIS science camera are even more detailed, and will hopefully be released by ESA soon!

“This is the first time landing sites on a comet have been considered,” said Stephan Ulamec, Lander Manager at DLR (German Aerospace Center), in an ESA statement.

Since rendezvousing with the comet after a decade long chase of over 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles), a top priority task for the science and engineering team leading Rosetta has been “Finding a landing strip” for the Philae comet lander.

“The clock is ticking’ to select a suitable landing zone soon since the comet warms up and the surface becomes ever more active as it swings in closer to the sun and makes the landing ever more hazardous.

This image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko shows the diversity of surface structures on the comet's nucleus. It was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft's OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on August 7, 2014. At the time, the spacecraft was 65 miles (104 kilometers) away from the 2.5 mile (4 kilometer) wide nucleus.  Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA/Enhanced processing Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
This image of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko shows the diversity of surface structures on the comet’s nucleus. It was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on August 7, 2014. At the time, the spacecraft was 65 miles (104 kilometers) away from the 2.5 mile (4 kilometer) wide nucleus. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA/Enhanced processing Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

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.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta's navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been rotated and contrast enhanced to bring out details. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Four-image photo mosaic comprising images taken by Rosetta’s navigation camera on 31 August 2014 from a distance of 61 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The mosaic has been rotated and contrast enhanced to bring out details. The comet nucleus is about 4 km across. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale.  Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM - Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Read my Rosetta series here:

5 Landing Site Candidates Selected for Rosetta’s Historic Philae Comet Lander

Rosetta Moving Closer to Comet 67P Hunting for Philae Landing Site

What’s Ahead for Rosetta – ‘Finding a Landing Strip’ on Bizarre Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Rosetta Arrives at ‘Scientific Disneyland’ for Ambitious Study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after 10 Year Voyage

Rosetta on Final Approach to Historic Comet Rendezvous – Watch Live Here

Rosetta Probe Swoops Closer to Comet Destination than ISS is to Earth and Reveals Exquisite Views

Rosetta Orbiter less than 500 Kilometers from Comet 67P Following Penultimate Trajectory Burn

Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

5 Landing Site Candidates Selected for Rosetta’s Historic Philae Comet Lander

Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander. The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Enlarged insets below highlight 5 landing zones. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
Story updated[/caption]

The ‘Top 5’ landing site candidates have been chosen for the Rosetta orbiters piggybacked Philae lander for humankind’s first attempt to land on a comet. See graphics above and below.

The potential touchdown sites were announce today, Aug. 25, based on high resolution measurements collected by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft over the past two weeks since arriving at the bizarre and pockmarked Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Aug. 6, 2014.

Rosetta is a mission of many firsts, including history’s first ever attempt to orbit a comet for long term study.

Philae’s history making landing on comet 67P is currently scheduled for around Nov. 11, 2014, and will be entirely automatic. The 100 kg lander is equipped with 10 science instruments.

“This is the first time landing sites on a comet have been considered,” said Stephan Ulamec, Lander Manager at DLR (German Aerospace Center), in an ESA statement.

Artist impression of Philae on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Artist impression of Philae on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Since rendezvousing with the comet after a decade long chase of over 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles), a top priority task for the science and engineering team leading Rosetta has been “Finding a landing strip” for the Philae comet lander.

“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 arrival live webcast.

So ‘the clock is ticking’ to select a suitable landing zone soon as the comet warms up and the surface becomes ever more active as it swings in closer to the sun and makes the landing ever more hazardous.

This past weekend, the site selection team met at CNES, Toulouse, France, and intensively discussed and scrutinized a preliminary list of 10 potential sites, and whittled that down to the ‘Top 5.’

Their goal was to find a ‘technically feasible’ touchdown site that was both safe and scientifically interesting.

“The site must balance the technical needs of the orbiter and lander during all phases of the separation, descent, and landing, and during operations on the surface with the scientific requirements of the 10 instruments on board Philae,” said ESA.

They also had to be within an ellipse of at least 1 square kilometer (six-tenths of a square mile) in diameter due to uncertainties in navigation as well as many other factors.

“For each possible zone, important questions must be asked: Will the lander be able to maintain regular communications with Rosetta? How common are surface hazards such as large boulders, deep crevasses or steep slopes? Is there sufficient illumination for scientific operations and enough sunlight to recharge the lander’s batteries beyond its initial 64-hour lifetime, while not so much as to cause overheating?” according to ESA.

Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager at DLR (German Aerospace Center) discusses landing during ESA webcast of Rosetta’s arrival at comet  Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA
Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager at DLR (German Aerospace Center) discusses landing during ESA webcast of Rosetta’s arrival at comet Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA

The Landing Site Selection Group (LSSG) team was comprised of 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 as well as the ESA Rosetta team, which includes representatives from science, operations and flight dynamics.

“Based on the particular shape and the global topography of Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko, it is probably no surprise that many locations had to be ruled out,” said Ulamec.

“The candidate sites that we want to follow up for further analysis are thought to be technically feasible on the basis of a preliminary analysis of flight dynamics and other key issues – for example they all provide at least six hours of daylight per comet rotation and offer some flat terrain. Of course, every site has the potential for unique scientific discoveries.”

When Rosetta arrived on Aug. 6, it was initially orbiting at a distance of about 100 km (62 miles) in front of the comet. Carefully timed thruster firings then brought it to within about 80 km distance. And it is moving far closer – to within 50 kilometers (31 miles) and even closer!

Upon arrival the comet was 522 million km from the Sun. As Rosetta escorts the comet looping around the sun, they move much closer. By landing time in mid-November they are only about 450 million km (280 million mi) from the sun.

At closest approach on 13 August 2015 the comet and Rosetta will be 185 million km from the Sun. That corresponds to an eightfold increase in the light received from the Sun.

Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander.   The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August from a distance of about 100 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Five candidate sites were identified on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for Rosetta’s Philae lander. The approximate locations of the five regions are marked on these OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on 16 August 2014 from a distance of about 100 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Therefore Rosetta and Philae will simultaneously study the warming effects of the sun as the comet outgases dust, water and much more.

The short period Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko has an orbital period of 6.5 years.

“The comet is very different to anything we’ve seen before, and exhibits spectacular features still to be understood,” says Jean-Pierre Bibring, a lead lander scientist and principal investigator of the CIVA instrument.

“The five chosen sites offer us the best chance to land and study the composition, internal structure and activity of the comet with the ten lander experiments.”

A close-up view of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko taken by the Rosetta spacecraft on Aug. 7, 2014. Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
A close-up view of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko taken by the Rosetta spacecraft on Aug. 7, 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

The ‘Top 5’ zones will be ranked by 14 September. Three are on the ‘head’ and two are on the ‘body’ of the bizarre two lobed alien world.

And a backup landing site will also be chosen for planning purposes and to develop landing sequences.

The ultimate selection of the primary landing site is slated for 14 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.

Why study comets?

Comets are leftover remnants from the formation of the solar system. Scientists believe they delivered a vast quantity of water to Earth. They may have also seeded Earth with organic molecules – the building blocks of life as we know it.

Any finding of organic molecules will be a major discovery for Rosetta and ESA and inform us about the origin of life on Earth.

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.

Ken Kremer

Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator, discusses spectacular hi res comet images returned so far by Rosetta during the Aug. 6 ESA webcast from mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: Roland Keller
Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator, discusses spectacular hi res comet images returned so far by Rosetta during the Aug. 6 ESA webcast from mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: Roland Keller
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA   Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Read my Rosetta series here:

Rosetta Moving Closer to Comet 67P Hunting for Philae Landing Site


Coma Dust Collection Science starts for Rosetta at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

What’s Ahead for Rosetta – ‘Finding a Landing Strip’ on Bizarre Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Rosetta Arrives at ‘Scientific Disneyland’ for Ambitious Study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after 10 Year Voyage

Rosetta on Final Approach to Historic Comet Rendezvous – Watch Live Here

Rosetta Probe Swoops Closer to Comet Destination than ISS is to Earth and Reveals Exquisite Views

Rosetta Orbiter less than 500 Kilometers from Comet 67P Following Penultimate Trajectory Burn

Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

Coma Dust Collection Science starts for Rosetta at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

With the historic arrival of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft at destination Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko flawlessly accomplished on August 6, 2014 after a decade long journey, ground breaking up close science at this bizarre world has begun while the team diligently and simultaneously searches for a landing site for the attached Philae comet lander.

Rosetta started collecting cometary dust from the coma encircling the comet’s nucleus with the onboard COSIMA instrument on Sunday, August 10, 2014 as the spacecraft orbits around and ahead of the icy wanderer from a distance of approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles). See coma image below.

Hopes are high that unprecedented science discoveries await at this alien world described as a “Scientific Disneyland,” by Mark McCaughrean, senior scientific adviser to ESA’s Science Directorate, during ESA’s live arrival day webcast. “It’s just astonishing.”

COSIMA stands for Cometary Secondary Ion Mass Analyser and is one of Rosetta’s suite of 11 state-of-the-art science instruments with a combined mass of 165 kg.

Its purpose is to conduct the first “in situ” analysis of the grains of dust particles emitted from the comets nucleus and determine their physical and chemical characteristics, including whether they are organic or inorganic – in essence what is cometary dust material made of and how it differs from the surface composition.

COSIMA will collect the coma dust using 24 specially designed ‘target holders’ – the first of which was opened to study the comets environment on Aug. 10. Since the comet is not especially active right now, the team plans to keep the target holder open for at least a month and check the progress of any particle collections on a weekly basis.

COSISCOPE image of the first target taken on 19 July 2014 (before the exposure, on 10 August, for cometary dust collection). The 1x1 cm target consists of a gold plate covered with a thin layer (30 µm) of gold nanoparticles (“gold black”). Illumination is by two LEDs, from the right side in this case. The bright dots on the vertical strip on the right side are used for target identification and for defining the coordinate system. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for COSIMA Team MPS/CSNSM/UNIBW/TUORLA/IWF/IAS/ESA/BUW/MPE/LPC2E/LCM/FMI/UTU/LISA/UOFC/vH&S
COSISCOPE image of the first target taken on 19 July 2014 (before the exposure, on 10 August, for cometary dust collection). The 1×1 cm target consists of a gold plate covered with a thin layer (30 µm) of gold nanoparticles (“gold black”). Illumination is by two LEDs, from the right side in this case. The bright dots on the vertical strip on the right side are used for target identification and for defining the coordinate system. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for COSIMA Team MPS/CSNSM/UNIBW/TUORLA/IWF/IAS/ESA/BUW/MPE/LPC2E/LCM/FMI/UTU/LISA/UOFC/vH&S

In fact the team says the coma environment “is still comparable to a high-quality cleanroom”at this time.

But everyone expects that to change radically as Rosetta continues escorting Comet 67P as it loops around the sun, getting closer and warming the surface every day and until reaching perihelion in August 2015.

COSIMA is managed by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (Max-Planck-Institut für Sonnensystemforschung ) in Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, with Principal Investigator Martin Hilchenbach.

There are also substantial contributions from the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale in France, Finnish Meteorological Institute, Osterreichisches Forschungszentrum Seibersdorf and more.

The target holders measure about one square centimeter and were developed by the Universität der Bundeswehr in Germany.

Each of these targets measures one square centimeter and is comprised of a gold plate covered with a thin 30 µm layer of gold nanoparticles (“gold black”) which the team says should “decelerate and capture cometary dust particles impacting with velocities of ~100 m/s.”

The target will be illuminated by a pair of LED’s to find the dust particles. The particles will be analyzed by COSIMA’s built in mass spectrometer after being located on the target holder by the French supplied COSISCOPE microscopic camera and ionized by a beam of indium ions.

Photo of the COSIMA (Cometary Secondary Ion Mass Analyser) instrument on Rosetta.  Credit: Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research/ESA
Photo of the COSIMA (Cometary Secondary Ion Mass Analyser) instrument on Rosetta. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research/ESA

The team expects any grains found on the first target to be analyzed by mid-September 2014.

“COSIMA uses the method of Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry. They will be fired at with a beam of Indium ions. This will spark individual ions (we say secondary ions) from their surfaces, which will then be analysed with COSIMA’s mass spectrometer,” according to a description from the COSIMA team.

The mass spec has the capability to analyze the elemental composition in an atomic mass range of 1 to 4000 atomic mass units, determine isotopic abundances of some key elements, characterize organic components and functional groups, and conduct mineralic and petrographic characterization of the inorganic phases, all of which will inform as as never before about solar system chemistry.

Comets are leftover remnants from the formation of the solar system. Scientists believe they delivered a vast quantity of water to Earth. They may have also seeded Earth with organic molecules – the building blocks of life as we know it.

Any finding of organic molecules and their identification by COSIMA will be a major discovery for Rosetta and ESA and inform us about the origin of life on Earth.

Data obtained so far from Rosetta’s VIRTIS instrument indicates the comets surface is too hot to be covered in ice and must instead have a dark, dusty crust.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

…….

Read my Rosetta series here:

What’s Ahead for Rosetta – ‘Finding a Landing Strip’ on Bizarre Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Rosetta Arrives at ‘Scientific Disneyland’ for Ambitious Study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after 10 Year Voyage

Rosetta on Final Approach to Historic Comet Rendezvous – Watch Live Here

Rosetta Probe Swoops Closer to Comet Destination than ISS is to Earth and Reveals Exquisite Views

Rosetta Orbiter less than 500 Kilometers from Comet 67P Following Penultimate Trajectory Burn

Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA   Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

What’s Ahead for Rosetta – ‘Finding a Landing Strip’ on Bizarre Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Where would you land here?
Newly released NAVCAM image taken by Rosetta on 5 August 2014 from a distance of about 145 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image has been rotated 180 degrees. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM[/caption]

Following the flawless and history making arrival of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft at its long sought destination of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on Wednesday, Aug. 6, the goal of conducting ground breaking science at this utterly alien and bizarre icy wanderer that looks like a ‘Scientific Disneyland’ can actually begin.

Rosetta is the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet and enter orbit – after a more than 10 year chase of 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles) along a highly complex trajectory from Earth. The arrival event was broadcast live from mission control at ESA’s spacecraft operations centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. Read my complete arrival story – here.

So what’s ahead for Rosetta? Another audacious and history making event – Landing on the comet!

A top priority task is also another highly complex task – ‘Finding a landing strip’ on the bizarre world of Comet 67P for the piggybacked Philae comet lander 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.

That will be no easy task based on the spectacular imagery captured by the OSIRIS high resolution science camera and the Navcam camera that has revealed an utterly wacky and incredibly differentiated world like none other we have ever visited or expected when the mission was conceived.

Magnificently detailed new navcam images were released by ESA today, Aug, 7, streaming back to Earth across some 405 million kilometers (250 million miles) of interplanetary space – see above and below.

The team will have its hand full trying to find a safe spot for touchdown.

“We now see lots of structure and details. Lots of topography is visible on the surface,” said Holger Sierks, principal investigator for Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, during the webcast.

“There is a big depression and 150 meter high cliffs, rubble piles, and also we see smooth areas and plains. It’s really fantastic”

“We see a village of house size boulders. Some about 10 meters in size and bigger and they vary in brightness. And some with sharp edges. We don’t know their composition yet,” explained Sierks.

NAVCAM image taken on 6 August 2014 from a distance of about 96 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.   Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
Newly released NAVCAM image taken on 6 August 2014 from a distance of about 96 km from comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

The key to finding a safe landing site for Philae will be quickly conducting a global comet mapping campaign with OSIRIS, Navcam and the remaining suite of 11 science instruments to provide a detailed scientific study of the physical characteristics and chemical composition of the surface.

They also need to determine which areas are hard or soft.

Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator, discuss spectacular hi res comet images returned so far by Rosetta during the Aug. 6 ESA webcast from mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: Roland Keller
Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator, discusses spectacular hi res comet images returned so far by Rosetta during the Aug. 6 ESA webcast from mission control at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany. Credit: Roland Keller

“Our first clear views of the comet have given us plenty to think about,” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.

“Is this double-lobed structure built from two separate comets that came together in the Solar System’s history, or is it one comet that has eroded dramatically and asymmetrically over time? Rosetta, by design, is in the best place to study one of these unique objects.”

The image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km.   Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
The image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Yesterday’s (Aug. 6) critical final thruster firing placed the 1.3 Billion euro robotic emissary from Earth into a triangular shaped orbit about 100 kilometers (62 miles) above and in front of the comet’s incredibly varied surface.

Therefore the initial mapping will be conducted from the 100 km (62 mi.) standoff distance.

Since the landing is currently targeted for November 11, 2014, in barely three months time there is not a moment to waste.

“Over the next few months, in addition to characterizing the comet nucleus and setting the bar for the rest of the mission, we will begin final preparations for another space history first: landing on a comet,” says Taylor.

The team will identify up to five possible landing sites by late August and expect to choose the primary site by mid-September.

Then the team has to plan and build the programming and maneuvers for the final timeline to implement the sequence of events leading to the nailbiting landing.

With Rosetta now travelling in a series of 100 kilometer-long (62 mile-long) triangular arcs in front of the comet lasting about 3 days each, it will also be firing thrusters at each apex.

After catching up with the comet Rosetta will slightly overtake and enter orbit from the ‘front’ of the comet as both the spacecraft and 67P/CG move along their orbits around the Sun. Rosetta will carry out a complex series of manoeuvres to reduce the separation between the spacecraft and comet from around 100 km to 25-30 km. From this close orbit, detailed mapping will allow scientists to determine the landing site for the mission’s Philae lander. Immediately prior to the deployment of Philae in November, Rosetta will come to within just 2.5 km of the comet’s nucleus.  This animation is not to scale; Rosetta’s solar arrays span 32 m, and the comet is approximately 4 km wide.  Credit: ESA–C. Carreau
After catching up with the comet Rosetta will slightly overtake and enter orbit from the ‘front’ of the comet as both the spacecraft and 67P/CG move along their orbits around the Sun. Rosetta will carry out a complex series of manoeuvres to reduce the separation between the spacecraft and comet from around 100 km to 25-30 km. From this close orbit, detailed mapping will allow scientists to determine the landing site for the mission’s Philae lander. Immediately prior to the deployment of Philae in November, Rosetta will come to within just 2.5 km of the comet’s nucleus. This animation is not to scale; Rosetta’s solar arrays span 32 m, and the comet is approximately 4 km wide. Credit: ESA–C. Carreau

But it will also gradually edge closer over the next six weeks to about 50 km distance and then even closer to lower Rosetta’s altitude about Comet 67P until the spacecraft is captured by the comet’s gravity.

In November 2014, Rosetta will attempt another historic first when it deploys the Philae science lander from an altitude of just about 2.5 kilometers above the comet for the first ever attempt to land on a comet’s nucleus.

The three-legged lander will fire 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 into and sample its incredibly varied surface.

How will Philae land?

Stefan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) talked about the challenges of landing in a low gravity environment during the ESA webcast.

“The touchdown will be at a speed of just 1 m/s,” Ulamec explained. “This is like walking and bouncing against a wall.”

Details in an upcoming story!

Why study comets?

Comets are leftover remnants from the formation of the solar system. Scientists believe they delivered a vast quantity of water to Earth. They may have also seeded Earth with organic molecules.

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale.  Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM - Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

…….

Read my Rosetta series here:

Rosetta Arrives at ‘Scientific Disneyland’ for Ambitious Study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after 10 Year Voyage

Rosetta on Final Approach to Historic Comet Rendezvous – Watch Live Here

Rosetta Probe Swoops Closer to Comet Destination than ISS is to Earth and Reveals Exquisite Views

Rosetta Orbiter less than 500 Kilometers from Comet 67P Following Penultimate Trajectory Burn

Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA   Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Rosetta Arrives at ‘Scientific Disneyland’ for Ambitious Study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after 10 Year Voyage

The image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Story updated[/caption]

“We’re at the comet! Yes,” exclaimed Rosetta Spacecraft Operations Manager Sylvain Lodiot, confirming the spacecraft’s historic arrival at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko during a live webcast this morning, Aug. 6, from mission control at ESA’s spacecraft operations centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta comet hunter successfully reached its long sought destination after a flawless orbital thruster firing at 11 AM CEST to become the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet and enter orbit aimed at an ambitious long term quest to produce ground breaking science.

“Ten years we’ve been in the car waiting to get to scientific Disneyland and we haven’t even gotten out of the car yet and look at what’s outside the window,” Mark McCaughrean, senior scientific adviser to ESA’s Science Directorate, said during today’s webcast. “It’s just astonishing.”

“The really big question is where did we and the solar system we live in come from? How did water and the complex organic molecules that build up life get to this planet? Water and life. These are the questions that motivate everybody.”

“Rosetta is indeed the ‘rosetta stone’ that will unlock this treasure chest to all comets.”

Today’s rendezvous climaxed Rosetta’s decade long and 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles) hot pursuit through interplanetary space for a cosmic kiss with Comet 67P while speeding towards the inner Solar System at nearly 55,000 kilometers per hour.

The probe is sending back spectacular up close high resolution imagery of the mysterious binary, two lobed comet, merged at a bright band at the narrow neck of the celestial wanderer that looks like a ‘rubber ducky.’

“This is the best comet nucleus ever resolved in space with the sharpest ever views of the nucleus, with 5.5.meter pixel resolution,” said Holger Sierks, principal investigator for Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany, during the webcast.

Back side view of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km.   The image resolution is 5.3 metres/pixel. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Back side view of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 3 August 2014 from a distance of 285 km. The image resolution is 5.3 metres/pixel. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

“We now see lots of structure and details. Lots of topography is visible on the surface. We see the nucleus and outgassing activity. The outbursts are seen with overexposed images. It’s really fantastic”

“There is a big depression on the head and 150 meter high cliffs, rubble piles, and also we see smooth areas and plains. The neck is about 1000 meters deep and is a cool area. There is outgassing visible from the neck.”

“We see a village of house size boulders. Some about 10 meters in size and bigger they vary in brightness. And some with sharp edges. We don’t know their composition yet.”

“We don’t understand how its created yet. That’s what we’ll find out in coming months as we get closer.”

“Rosetta has arrived and will get even closer. We’ll get ten times the resolution compared to now.”

“The comet is a story about us. It will be the key in cometary science. Where did it form? What does it tell us about the water on Earth and the early solar system and where it come from?”

Following the blastoff on 2 March 2004 tucked inside the payload fairing of an Ariane 5 G+ rocket from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, Rosetta traveled on a complex trajectory.

It conducted four gravity assist speed boosting slingshot maneuvers, three at Earth and one at Mars, to gain sufficient velocity to reach the comet, Lodiot explained.

The 1.3 Billion euro robotic emissary from Earth is now orbiting about 100 kilometers (62 miles) above the comet’s surface, some 405 million kilometers (250 million mi.) from Earth, about half way between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars.

The main event today, Aug. 6, was to complete an absolutely critical thruster firing which was the last of 10 orbit correction maneuvers (OCM’s). It started precisely on time at 11:00 AM CEST/09:00 GMT/5:00 AM EST, said Lodiot. The signal was one of the cleanest of the entire mission.

The orbital insertion engine firing dubbed the Close Approach Trajectory – Insertion (CATI) burn was scheduled to last about 6 minutes 26 seconds. Confirmation of a successful burn came some 28 minutes later.

“We’re at the comet! Yes,” Lodiot excitedly announced live whereupon the crowd of team members, dignitaries and journalists at ESOC erupted in cheers.

For the next 17 months, the probe will escort comet 67P as it loops around the Sun towards perihelion in August 2015 and then continue along on the outbound voyage towards Jupiter.

ESA’s incredibly bold mission will also deploy the three-legged piggybacked Philae lander to touch down and drill into and sample its incredibly varied surface a little over three months from now.

Together, Rosetta and Philae are equipped with a suite of 21 science instruments to conduct an unprecedented investigation to characterize the 4 km wide (2.5 mi.) comet and study how the pristine frozen body composed of ice and rock is transformed by the warmth of the Sun.

Comets are believed to have delivered a vast quantity of water to Earth. They may have also seeded Earth with organic molecules.

Close-up detail of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The image was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera and downloaded today, 6 August. The image shows the comet’s ‘head’ at the left of the frame, which is casting shadow onto the ‘neck’ and ‘body’ to the right.  The image was taken from a distance of 120 km and the image resolution is 2.2 metres per pixel. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Close-up detail of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The image was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera and downloaded today, 6 August. The image shows the comet’s ‘head’ at the left of the frame, which is casting shadow onto the ‘neck’ and ‘body’ to the right.
The image was taken from a distance of 120 km and the image resolution is 2.2 metres per pixel. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Rosetta and Philae will also search for organic molecules, nucleic acids and amino acids, the building blocks for life as we know it by sampling and analyzing the comets nucleus and coma cloud of gas and dust.

“The first coma sampling could happen as early as next week,” said Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist on the webcast.

“Is this double-lobed structure built from two separate comets that came together in the Solar System’s history, or is it one comet that has eroded dramatically and asymmetrically over time? Rosetta, by design, is in the best place to study one of these unique objects.”

After thoroughly mapping the comet, the team will command Rosetta to move even lower to 50 km altitude and then even lower to 30 km and less.

The scientists and engineers will search for up to five possible landing sites for Philae to prepare for the touchdown in mid-November 2014.

“We want to characterize the nucleus so we can land in November,” said Taylor. “We will have a ringside along with the comet as it moves inwards to the sun and then further out.”

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko activity on 2 August 2014. The IMAGE was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS wide-angle camera from a distance of 550 km. The exposure time of the image was 330 seconds and the comet nucleus is saturated to bring out the detail of the comet activity. Note there is a ghost image to the right. The image resolution is 55 metres per pixel. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko activity on 2 August 2014. The IMAGE was taken by Rosetta’s OSIRIS wide-angle camera from a distance of 550 km. The exposure time of the image was 330 seconds and the comet nucleus is saturated to bring out the detail of the comet activity. Note there is a ghost image to the right. The image resolution is 55 metres per pixel. Credits: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Studying comets will shed light on the history of water and life on Earth.

“We are going to places we have never been to before,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General during the webcast.

“We want to get answers to questions to the origin to water and complex molecules on Earth. This opens up even more new questions than answers.”

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale.  Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM - Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Watch for updates.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

……..

Read my Rosetta series here:

Rosetta on Final Approach to Historic Comet Rendezvous – Watch Live Here

Rosetta Probe Swoops Closer to Comet Destination than ISS is to Earth and Reveals Exquisite Views

Rosetta Orbiter less than 500 Kilometers from Comet 67P Following Penultimate Trajectory Burn


Rosetta Closing in on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after Decade Long Chase

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA   Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

Rosetta on Final Approach to Historic Comet Rendezvous – Watch Live Here

ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2, 3 and 4 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km, 300 km and 234 km. Not to scale. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Watch ESA’s Live Webcast here on Aug. 6 starting at 4 AM EDT/ 8 AM GMT[/caption]

After a decade long chase of 6.4 billion kilometers (4 Billion miles) through interplanetary space the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft is now on final approach for its historic rendezvous with its target comet 67P scheduled for Wednesday morning, Aug. 6. some half a billion kilometers from the Sun. See online webcast below.

Rosetta arrives at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in less than 12 hours and is currently less than 200 kilometers away.

You can watch a live streaming webcast of Rosetta’s Aug. 6 orbital arrival here, starting at 10:00 a.m. CEST/8 a.m. GMT/4 a.m. EDT/1 a.m. PDT via a transmission from ESA’s spacecraft operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

Rosetta is the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet and enter orbit around it. The probe will then escort comet 67P as it loops around the Sun, as well as deploy the piggybacked Philae lander to its uneven surface.

Orbit entry takes place after the probe initiates the last of 10 orbit correction maneuvers (OCM’s) on Aug. 6 starting at 11:00 CEST/09:00 GMT.

The thruster firing, dubbed the Close Approach Trajectory – Insertion (CATI) burn, is scheduled to last about 6 minutes 26 seconds. Engineers transmitted the commands last night, Aug. 4.

CATI will place the 1.3 Billion Euro Rosetta into an initial orbit at a distance of about 100 kilometers (62 miles).

Since the one way signal time is 22 min 29 sec, it will take that long before engineers can confirm the success of the CATI thruster firing.

As engineers at ESOC mission control carefully navigate Rosetta ever closer, the probe has been capturing spectacular imagery showing rocks, gravel and tiny crater like features on its craggily surface with alternating smooth and rough terrain and deposits of water ice.

See above and below our collages (created by Marco Di Lorenzo & Ken Kremer) of navcam camera approach images of the comet’s two lobed nucleus captured over the past week and a half. Another shows an OSIRIS camera image of the expanding coma cloud of water and dust.

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA   Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft nears final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in late July 2014. This collage of imagery from Rosetta combines Navcam camera images at right taken nearing final approach from July 25 (3000 km distant) to July 31, 2014 (1327 km distant), with OSIRIS wide angle camera image at left of comet’s expanding coma cloud on July 25. Images to scale and contrast enhanced to show further detail. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/OSIRIS/MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA Collage/Processing: Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer

The up close imagery revealed that the mysterious comet looks like a ‘rubber ducky’ and is comprised of two lobes merged at a bright band at the narrow neck in between.

Rosetta’s navcam camera has been commanded to capture daily images of the comet that rotates around once every 12.4 hours.

After orbital insertion on Aug. 6, Rosetta will initially be travelling in a series of 100 kilometer-long (62 mile-long) triangular arcs in front of the comet while firing thrusters at each apex. Further engine firings will gradually lower Rosetta’s altitude about Comet 67P until the spacecraft is captured by the comet’s gravity.

ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2 and 3 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km and 300 km. Not to scale.  Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM   Collage/Processing: Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
ESA’s Rosetta Spacecraft on final approach to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in early August 2014. This collage of navcam imagery from Rosetta was taken on Aug. 1, 2 and 3 from distances of 1026 km, 500 km and 300 km. Not to scale. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM Collage/Processing: Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Rosetta will continue in orbit at comet 67P for a 17 month long study.

In November 2014, Rosetta will attempt another historic first when it deploys the piggybacked Philae science lander from an altitude of just about 2.5 kilometers above the comet for the first ever attempt to land on a comet’s nucleus. The lander will fire harpoons to anchor itself to the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) wide comet’s surface.

Together, Rosetta and Philae will investigate how the pristine frozen comet composed of ice and rock is transformed by the warmth of the Sun. They will also search for organic molecules, nucleic acids and amino acids, the building blocks for life as we know it.

Rosetta was launched on 2 March 2004 on an Ariane 5 G+ rocket from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Rosetta, Curiosity, Opportunity, Orion, SpaceX, Boeing, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, MAVEN, MOM, Mars and more Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer