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Forum:Satellites - Robotic Probes
Topic:ESA's Rosetta probe to Comet 67P
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Thirty-one months later, Rosetta's orbit has brought it back to within 'only' 673 million kilometres of the Sun, and there is finally enough solar energy to power the spacecraft fully again. It is time to wake up.

Rosetta's computer is programmed to carry out a sequence of events to re-establish contact with Earth on 20 January, starting with an 'alarm clock' at 10:00 GMT.

Immediately after, the spacecraft's startrackers will begin to warm up, taking around six hours.

Then its thrusters will fire to stop the slow rotation. A slight adjustment will be made to Rosetta's orientation to ensure that the solar arrays are still facing directly towards the Sun, before the startrackers are switched on to determine the spacecraft's attitude.

Once that has been established, Rosetta will turn directly towards Earth, switch on its transmitter and point its high-gain antenna to send its signal to announce that it is awake.

Because of Rosetta's vast distance — just over 807 million kilometres from Earth — it will take 45 minutes for the signal to reach the ground stations. The first opportunity for receiving a signal on Earth is expected between 17:30 GMT and 18:30 GMT (1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. CST).

Deep space tracking dishes will be listening out for the signal, starting with NASA's 'big ears' — the 70 m-diameter station at Goldstone, California, followed by, as the Earth rotates, the Canberra station in eastern Australia. ESA's New Norcia 35 m antenna, in Western Australia, would be next in line to await the signal's arrival.

Whenever the signal is received, it will be relayed immediately to ESOC, ESA's Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

This exciting moment will be announced to the world straightaway via the @ESA_Rosetta twitter account.

Once mission controllers have verified Rosetta's health, each of its scientific instruments will be switched back on and checked out, an effort that will take several months as the spacecraft continues to eat up the remaining 9 million kilometres separating it from the comet.

In May, Rosetta will make a major manoeuvre to line up for arriving at its target comet in August. If all goes well, it will become the first space mission to rendezvous with a comet, the first to attempt a landing, and the first to follow a comet as it swings around the Sun.

Comets are considered to be the primitive building blocks of the Solar System and likely helped to 'seed' Earth with water, and perhaps even the ingredients for life. But many fundamental questions about these enigmatic objects remain, and through its comprehensive, close-up study of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta aims to unlock the secrets within.

Robert PearlmanEuropean Space Agency release
ESA's 'sleeping beauty' wakes up from deep space hibernation

It was a fairy-tale ending to a tense chapter in the story of the Rosetta space mission this evening as ESA heard from its distant spacecraft for the first time in 31 months.

Rosetta is chasing down Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, where it will become the first space mission to rendezvous with a comet, the first to attempt a landing on a comet's surface, and the first to follow a comet as it swings around the Sun.

Since its launch in 2004, Rosetta has made three flybys of Earth and one of Mars to help it on course to its rendezvous with 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, encountering asteroids Steins and Lutetia along the way.

Operating on solar energy alone, Rosetta was placed into a deep space slumber in June 2011 as it cruised out to a distance of nearly 800 million km from the warmth of the Sun, beyond the orbit of Jupiter.

Now, as Rosetta's orbit has brought it back to within 'only' 673 million km from the Sun, there is enough solar energy to power the spacecraft fully again.

Thus today (Jan. 20), still about 6 million miles (9 million km) from the comet, Rosetta's pre-programmed internal 'alarm clock' woke up the spacecraft. After warming up its key navigation instruments, coming out of a stabilising spin, and aiming its main radio antenna at Earth, Rosetta sent a signal to let mission operators know it had survived the most distant part of its journey.

The signal was received by NASA's Goldstone ground station in California at (12:18 p.m. CST) 18:18 GMT, during the first window of opportunity the spacecraft had to communicate with Earth.

It was immediately confirmed in ESA's space operations centre in Darmstadt and the successful wake-up announced via the @ESA_Rosetta twitter account, which tweeted: "Hello, World!"

"We have our comet-chaser back," says Alvaro Giménez, ESA's Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. "With Rosetta, we will take comet exploration to a new level. This incredible mission continues our history of 'firsts' at comets, building on the technological and scientific achievements of our first deep space mission Giotto, which returned the first close-up images of a comet nucleus as it flew past Halley in 1986."

"This was one alarm clock not to hit snooze on, and after a tense day we are absolutely delighted to have our spacecraft awake and back online," adds Fred Jansen, ESA's Rosetta mission manager.

Comets are considered the primitive building blocks of the Solar System and likely helped to 'seed' Earth with water, perhaps even the ingredients for life. But many fundamental questions about these enigmatic objects remain, and through its comprehensive, in situ study of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Rosetta aims to unlock the secrets contained within.

"All other comet missions have been flybys, capturing fleeting moments in the life of these icy treasure chests," says Matt Taylor, ESA's Rosetta project scientist. "With Rosetta, we will track the evolution of a comet on a daily basis and for over a year, giving us a unique insight into a comet's behaviour and ultimately helping us to decipher their role in the formation of the Solar System."

But first, essential health checks on the spacecraft must be completed. Then the eleven instruments on the orbiter and ten on the lander will be turned on and prepared for studying Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

"We have a busy few months ahead preparing the spacecraft and its instruments for the operational challenges demanded by a lengthy, close-up study of a comet that, until we get there, we know very little about," says Andrea Accomazzo, ESA's Rosetta operations manager.

Rosetta's first images of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko are expected in May, when the spacecraft is still 2 million km from its target. Towards the end of May, the spacecraft will execute a major manoeuvre to line up for its critical rendezvous with the comet in August.

After rendezvous, Rosetta will start with two months of extensive mapping of the comet's surface, and will also make important measurements of the comet's gravity, mass and shape, and assess its gaseous, dust-laden atmosphere, or coma. The orbiter will also probe the plasma environment and analyse how it interacts with the Sun's outer atmosphere, the solar wind.

Using these data, scientists will choose a landing site for the mission's 100 kg Philae probe. The landing is currently scheduled for 11 November and will be the first time that a landing on a comet has ever been attempted.

In fact, given the almost negligible gravity of the comet's 4 km-wide nucleus, Philae will have to use ice screws and harpoons to stop it from rebounding back into space after touchdown.

Among its wide range of scientific measurements, Philae will send back a panorama of its surroundings, as well as very high-resolution pictures of the surface. It will also perform an on-the-spot analysis of the composition of the ices and organic material, including drilling down to 23 cm below the surface and feeding samples to Philae's on-board laboratory for analysis.

The focus of the mission will then move to the 'escort' phase, during which Rosetta will stay alongside the comet as it moves closer to the Sun, monitoring the ever-changing conditions on the surface as the comet warms up and its ices sublimate.

The comet will reach its closest distance to the Sun on 13 August 2015 at about 185 million km, roughly between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Rosetta will follow the comet throughout the remainder of 2015, as it heads away from the Sun and activity begins to subside.

"We will face many challenges this year as we explore the unknown territory of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and I'm sure there will be plenty of surprises, but today we are just extremely happy to be back on speaking terms with our spacecraft," adds Matt Taylor.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA Instruments Begin Science on European Spacecraft Set to Land on Comet

Three NASA science instruments aboard the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft, which is set to become the first to orbit a comet and land a probe on its nucleus, are beginning observations and sending science data back to Earth.

Launched in March 2004, Rosetta was reactivated January 2014 after a record 957 days in hibernation. Composed of an orbiter and lander, Rosetta's objective is to arrive at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August to study the celestial object up close in unprecedented detail and prepare for landing a probe on the comet's nucleus in November.

Rosetta's lander will obtain the first images taken from a comet's surface and will provide the first analysis of a comet's composition by drilling into the surface. Rosetta also will be the first spacecraft to witness at close proximity how a comet changes as it is subjected to the increasing intensity of the sun's radiation. Observations will help scientists learn more about the origin and evolution of our solar system and the role comets may have played in seeding Earth with water, and perhaps even life.

"We are happy to be seeing some real zeroes and ones coming down from our instruments, and cannot wait to figure out what they are telling us," said Claudia Alexander, Rosetta's U.S. project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "Never before has a spacecraft pulled up and parked next to a comet. That is what Rosetta will do, and we are delighted to play a part in such a historic mission of exploration."

Rosetta currently is approaching the main asteroid belt located between Jupiter and Mars,. The spacecraft is still about 300,000 miles (500,000 kilometers) from the comet, but in August the instruments will begin to map its surface.

The three U.S. instruments aboard the spacecraft are the Microwave Instrument for Rosetta Orbiter (MIRO), an ultraviolet spectrometer called Alice, and the Ion and Electron Sensor (IES). They are part of a suite of 11 science instruments aboard the Rosetta orbiter.

MIRO is designed to provide data on how gas and dust leave the surface of the nucleus to form the coma and tail that gives comets their intrinsic beauty. Studying the surface temperature and evolution of the coma and tail provides information on how the comet evolves as it approaches and leaves the vicinity of the sun.

Alice will analyze gases in the comet's coma, which is the bright envelope of gas around the nucleus of the comet developed as a comet approaches the sun. Alice also will measure the rate at which the comet produces water, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. These measurements will provide valuable information about the surface composition of the nucleus.

The instrument also will measure the amount of argon present, an important clue about the temperature of the solar system at the time the comet's nucleus originally formed more than 4.6 billion years ago.

IES is part of a suite of five instruments to analyze the plasma environment of the comet, particularly the coma. The instrument will measure the charged particles in the sun's outer atmosphere, or solar wind, as they interact with the gas flowing out from the comet while Rosetta is drawing nearer to the comet's nucleus.

NASA also provided part of the electronics package for the Double Focusing Mass Spectrometer, which is part of the Swiss-built Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis (ROSINA) instrument. ROSINA will be the first instrument in space with sufficient resolution to be able to distinguish between molecular nitrogen and carbon monoxide, two molecules with approximately the same mass. Clear identification of nitrogen will help scientists understand conditions at the time the solar system was formed.

U.S. scientists are partnering on several non-U.S. instruments and are involved in seven of the mission's 21 instrument collaborations. NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) is supporting ESA's Ground Station Network for spacecraft tracking and navigation.

Robert PearlmanEuropean Space Agency Rosetta Blog
The dual personality of comet 67P/C-G

This week's images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko reveal an extraordinarily irregular shape. We had hints of that in last week's images and in the unscheduled previews that were seen a few days ago, and in that short time it has become clear that this is no ordinary comet. Like its name, it seems that comet 67P/C-G is in two parts.

What the spacecraft is actually seeing is the pixelated image shown below, which was taken by Rosetta's OSIRIS narrow angle camera on 14 July from a distance of 12 000 km.

A second image and a movie show the comet after the image has been processed. The technique used, called "sub-sampling by interpolation", only acts to remove the pixelisation and make a smoother image, and it is important to note that the comet's surface features won't be as smooth as the processing implies. The surface texture has yet to be resolved simply because we are still too far away; any apparent brighter or darker regions may turn out to be false interpretations at this early stage.

But the movie, which uses a sequence of 36 interpolated images each separated by 20 minutes, certainly provides a truly stunning 360-degree preview of the overall complex shape of the comet. Regardless of surface texture, we can certainly see an irregular shaped world shining through. Indeed, some people have already likened the shape to a duck, with a distinct body and head.

Although less obvious in the 'real' image, the movie of interpolated images supports the presence of two definite components. One segment seems to be rather elongated, while the other appears more bulbous.

Dual objects like this – known as 'contact binaries' in comet and asteroid terminology – are not uncommon.

Indeed, comet 8P/Tuttle is thought to be such a contact binary; radio imaging by the ground-based Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico in 2008 suggested that it comprises two sphere-like objects. Meanwhile, the bone-shaped comet 103P/Hartley 2, imaged during NASA's EPOXI flyby in 2011, revealed a comet with two distinct halves separated by a smooth region. In addition, observations of asteroid 25143 Itokawa by JAXA's Hayabusa mission, combined with ground-based data, suggest an asteroid comprising two sections of highly contrasting densities.

Is Rosetta en-route to rendezvous with a similar breed of comet? The scientific rewards of studying such a comet would be high, as a number of possibilities exist as to how they form.

One popular theory is that such an object could arise when two comets – even two compositionally distinct comets – melded together under a low velocity collision during the Solar System's formation billions of years ago, when small building blocks of rocky and icy debris coalesced to eventually create planets. Perhaps comet 67P/C-G will provide a unique record of the physical processes of accretion.

Or maybe it is the other way around – that is, a single comet could be tugged into a curious shape by the strong gravitational pull of a large object like Jupiter or the Sun; after all, comets are rubble piles with weak internal strength as directly witnessed in the fragmentation of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 and the subsequent impacts into Jupiter, 20 years ago this week. Perhaps the two parts of comet 67P/C-G will one day separate completely.

On the other hand, perhaps comet 67P/C-G may have once been a much rounder object that became highly asymmetric thanks to ice evaporation. This could have happened when the comet first entered the Solar System from the Kuiper Belt, or on subsequent orbits around the Sun.

One could also speculate that the striking dichotomy of the comet's morphology is the result of a near catastrophic impact event that ripped out one side of the comet. Similarly, it is not unreasonable to think that a large outburst event may have weakened one side of the comet so much that it simply gave away, crumbling into space.

But, while the interpolated images are certainly brilliant, we need to be closer still to see a better three-dimensional view – not to mention to perform a spectroscopic analysis to determine the comet's composition – in order to draw robust scientific conclusions about this exciting comet.

Rosetta Mission Manager Fred Jansen comments: "We currently see images that suggest a rather complex cometary shape, but there is still a lot that we need to learn before jumping to conclusions. Not only in terms of what this means for comet science in general, but also regarding our planning for science observations, and the operational aspects of the mission such as orbiting and landing.

"We will need to perform detailed analyses and modelling of the shape of the comet to determine how best we can fly around such a uniquely shaped body, taking into account flight control and astrodynamics, the science requirements of the mission, and the landing-related elements like landing site analysis and lander-to-orbiter visibility. But, with fewer than 10 000 km to go before the 6 August rendezvous, our open questions will soon be answered."

Robert PearlmanEuropean Space Agency (ESA) photo release
Comet on 29 July 2014

The nucleus of Rosetta's target comet seen from a distance of 1,212 miles (1,950 km) on July 29, 2014.

One pixel corresponds to about 120 feet (37 m) in this narrow-angle camera view. The bright neck between the two lobes of the nucleus is becoming more and more distinct.

Robert PearlmanEuropean Space Agency (ESA) photo release
Comet at 1000 km

Rosetta sees the comet just five days before arrival.

This image was acquired Aug. 1 at 04:48 CEST (02:48 UTC) by the OSIRIS Narrow Angle Camera on board ESA's Rosetta spacecraft. The distance was approximately 1000 km. Note that the dark spot is an artifact from the onboard CCD.

Robert PearlmanEuropean Space Agency (ESA) photo release
Comet at 300 km

Rosetta navigation camera (NAVCAM) image taken on Aug. 3, 2014 at about 300 km from comet 67P/C-G. The Sun is towards the bottom of the image in the depicted orientation.
Robert PearlmanEuropean Space Agency (ESA) release
Rosetta arrives at comet destination

After a decade-long journey chasing its target, ESA's Rosetta has today (Aug. 6) become the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a comet, opening a new chapter in Solar System exploration.

Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko and Rosetta now lie 405 million kilometers from Earth, about half way between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, rushing towards the inner Solar System at nearly 55 000 kilometers per hour.

The comet is in an elliptical 6.5-year orbit that takes it from beyond Jupiter at its furthest point, to between the orbits of Mars and Earth at its closest to the Sun. Rosetta will accompany it for over a year as they swing around the Sun and back out towards Jupiter again.

Above: This animation comprises 101 images acquired by the Navigation Camera on board ESA's Rosetta spacecraft as it approached comet 67P/C-G in August 2014. The first image was taken on 1 August at 11:07 UTC (12:07 CEST), at a distance of 832 km. The last image was taken 6 August at 06:07 UTC (08:07 CEST) at a distance of 110 km.

Comets are considered to be primitive building blocks of the Solar System and may have helped to 'seed' Earth with water, perhaps even the ingredients for life. But many fundamental questions about these enigmatic objects remain, and through a comprehensive,in situstudy of the comet, Rosetta aims to unlock the secrets within.

The journey to the comet was not straightforward, however. Since its launch in 2004, Rosetta had to make three gravity-assist flybys of Earth and one of Mars to help it on course to its rendezvous with the comet. This complex course also allowed Rosetta to pass by asteroids Šteins and Lutetia, obtaining unprecedented views and scientific data on these two objects.

"After ten years, five months and four days traveling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometers, we are delighted to announce finally 'we are here'," says Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA's Director General.

"Europe's Rosetta is now the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet, a major highlight in exploring our origins. Discoveries can start."

Today saw the last of a series of ten rendezvous maneuvers that began in May to adjust Rosetta's speed and trajectory gradually to match those of the comet. If any of these maneuvers had failed, the mission would have been lost, and the spacecraft would simply have flown by the comet.

"Today's achievement is a result of a huge international endeavor spanning several decades," says Alvaro Giménez, ESA's Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

"We have come an extraordinarily long way since the mission concept was first discussed in the late 1970s and approved in 1993, and now we are ready to open a treasure chest of scientific discovery that is destined to rewrite the textbooks on comets for even more decades to come."

The comet began to reveal its personality while Rosetta was on its approach. Images taken by the OSIRIS camera between late April and early June showed that its activity was variable. The comet's 'coma' — an extended envelope of gas and dust — became rapidly brighter and then died down again over the course of those six weeks.

In the same period, first measurements from the Microwave Instrument for the Rosetta Orbiter, MIRO, suggested that the comet was emitting water vapor into space at about 300 milliliters per second.

Meanwhile, the Visible and Infrared Thermal Imaging Spectrometer, VIRTIS, measured the comet's average temperature to be about –70ºC, indicating that the surface is predominantly dark and dusty rather than clean and icy.

Then, stunning images taken from a distance of about 12,000 km began to reveal that the nucleus comprises two distinct segments joined by a 'neck,' giving it a duck-like appearance. Subsequent images showed more and more detail — the most recent, highest-resolution image was downloaded from the spacecraft earlier today and will be available this afternoon.

"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."

Today, Rosetta is just 100 km from the comet's surface, but it will edge closer still. Over the next six weeks, it will describe two triangular-shaped trajectories in front of the comet, first at a distance of 100 km and then at 50 km.

At the same time, more of the suite of instruments will provide a detailed scientific study of the comet, scrutinizing the surface for a target site for the Philae lander.

Eventually, Rosetta will attempt a close, near-circular orbit at 30 km and, depending on the activity of the comet, perhaps come even closer.

"Arriving at the comet is really only just the beginning of an even bigger adventure, with greater challenges still to come as we learn how to operate in this unchartered environment, start to orbit and, eventually, land," says Sylvain Lodiot, ESA's Rosetta spacecraft operations manager.

As many as five possible landing sites will be identified by late August, before the primary site is identified in mid-September. The final timeline for the sequence of events for deploying Philae – currently expected for 11 November – will be confirmed by the middle of October.

"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 Matt.

"After landing, Rosetta will continue to accompany the comet until its closest approach to the Sun in August 2015 and beyond, watching its behavior from close quarters to give us a unique insight and realtime experience of how a comet works as it hurtles around the Sun."

Robert PearlmanEuropean Space Agency (ESA) photo release
Postcards from Rosetta

Stunning close up detail focusing on a smooth region on the 'base' of the 'body' section of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The image was taken by Rosetta's OSIRIS narrow-angle camera and downloaded today, 6 August. The image clearly shows a range of features, including boulders, craters and steep cliffs.

The image was taken from a distance of 130 km and the image resolution is 2.4 metres per pixel.

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.

Robert PearlmanEuropean Space Agency (ESA) release
Rosetta: Landing site search narrows

Using detailed information collected by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft during its first two weeks at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, five locations have been identified as candidate sites to set down the Philae lander in November – the first time a landing on a comet has ever been attempted.

Before arrival, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko had never been seen close up and so the race to find a suitable landing site for the 100 kg lander could only begin when Rosetta rendezvoused with the comet on 6 August.

The landing is expected to take place in mid-November when the comet is about 450 million km from the Sun, before activity on the comet reaches levels that might jeopardise the safe and accurate deployment of Philae to the comet's surface, and before surface material is modified by this activity.

The comet is on a 6.5-year orbit around the Sun and today is 522 million km from it. At their closest approach on 13 August 2015, just under a year from now, the comet and Rosetta will be 185 million km from the Sun, meaning an eightfold increase in the light received from the Sun.

While Rosetta and its scientific instruments will watch how the comet evolves as heating by the Sun increases, observing how its coma develops and how the surface changes over time, the lander Philae and its instruments will be tasked with making complementary in situ measurements at the comet's surface. The lander and orbiter will also work together using the CONSERT experiment to send and detect radio waves through the comet's interior, in order to characterise its internal structure.

Choosing the right landing site is a complex process. That 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.

A key issue is that uncertainties in the navigation of the orbiter close to the comet mean that it is only possible to specify any given landing zone in terms of an ellipse – covering up to one square kilometre – within which Philae might land.

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?

To answer these questions, data acquired by Rosetta from about 100 km distance have been used, including high-resolution images of the surface, measurements of the comet's surface temperature, and the pressure and density of gas around the nucleus. In addition, measurements of the comet's orientation with respect to the Sun, its rotation, mass and surface gravity have been determined. All of these factors influence the technical feasibility of landing at any specific location on the comet.

This weekend, the Landing Site Selection Group (comprising engineers and scientists from Philae's Science, Operations and Navigation Centre at CNES, the Lander Control Centre at DLR, scientists representing the Philae Lander instruments and ESA's Rosetta team) met at CNES, Toulouse, to consider the available data and determine a shortlist of five candidate sites.

"This is the first time landing sites on a comet have been considered," says Stephan Ulamec, Lander Manager at DLR.

"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. 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."

"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."

The sites were assigned a letter from an original pre-selection of 10 possible sites, which does not signify any ranking. Three sites (B, I and J) are located on the smaller of the two lobes of the comet and two sites (A and C) are located on the larger lobe.

Summary of the five candidate sites

  • Site A
    Site A is an interesting region located on the larger lobe, but with a good view of the smaller lobe. The terrain between the two lobes is likely the source of some outgassing. Higher-resolution imaging is needed to study potential surface hazards such as small depressions and slopes, while the illumination conditions also need to be considered further.

  • Site B
    Site B, within the crater-like structure on the smaller lobe, has a flat terrain and is thus considered relatively safe for landing, but illumination conditions may pose a problem when considering the longer-term science planning of Philae. Higher-resolution imaging will be needed to assess the boulder hazards in more detail. In addition, the boulders are also thought to represent more recently processed material and therefore this site may not be as pristine as some of the others.

  • Site C
    Site C is located on the larger lobe and hosts a range of surface features including some brighter material, depressions, cliffs, hills and smooth plains, but higher-resolution imaging is needed to assess the risk of some of these features. It is also well illuminated, which would benefit the long-term scientific planning for Philae.

  • Site I
    Site I is a relatively flat area on the smaller lobe that may contain some fresh material, but higher-resolution imaging is needed to assess the extent of the rough terrain. The illumination conditions should also allow for longer-term science planning.

  • Site J
    Site J is similar to site I, and also on the smaller lobe, offering interesting surface features and good illumination. It offers advantages for the CONSERT experiment compared with Site I, but higher-resolution imaging is needed to determine the details of the terrain, which shows some boulders and terracing.

The next step is a comprehensive analysis of each of the candidate sites, to determine possible orbital and operational strategies that could be used for Rosetta to deliver the lander to any of them. At the same time, Rosetta will move to within 50 km of the comet, allowing a more detailed study of the proposed landing sites.

By 14 September, the five candidate sites will have been assessed and ranked, leading to the selection of a primary landing site, for which a fully detailed strategy for the landing operations will be developed, along with a backup.

During this phase, Rosetta will move to within 20–30 km of the comet, allowing even more detailed maps of the boulder distributions at the primary and backup landing sites to be made. This information could be important in deciding whether to switch from primary to backup.

The Rosetta mission team are working towards a nominal landing date of 11 November, but confirmation of the primary landing site and the date will likely only come on 12 October. This will be followed by a formal Go/No Go from ESA, in agreement with the lander team, after a comprehensive readiness review on 14 October.

"The process of selecting a landing site is extremely complex and dynamic; as we get closer to the comet, we will see more and more details, which will influence the final decision on where and when we can land," says Fred Jansen, ESA Rosetta mission manager.

"We had to complete our preliminary analysis on candidate sites very quickly after arriving at the comet, and now we have just a few more weeks to determine the primary site. The clock is ticking and we now have to meet the challenge to pick the best possible landing site."

Robert PearlmanEuropean Space Agency (ESA) release
'J' marks the spot for Rosetta's lander

Rosetta's lander Philae will target Site J, 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.

Site J is on the 'head' of the comet, an irregular shaped world that is just over 4 km across at its widest point. The decision to select Site J as the primary site was unanimous. The backup, Site C, is located on the 'body' of the comet.

Above: Philae's primary landing site will target Site J, the centre of which is indicated by the cross in this OSIRIS narrow-angle image. (ESA)

The 100 kg lander is planned to reach the surface on 11 November, where it will perform indepth measurements to characterise the nucleus in situ, in a totally unprecedented way.

But choosing a suitable landing site has not been an easy task.

"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 Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager at the DLR German Aerospace Center.

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

"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."

Above: Context image showing the location of the primary landing site for Rosetta's lander Philae. (ESA)

The race to find the landing site could only begin once Rosetta arrived at the comet on 6 August, when the comet was seen close-up for the first time. By 24 August, using data collected when Rosetta was still about 100 km from the comet five candidate regions had been identified for further analysis.

Since then, the spacecraft has moved to within 30 km of the comet, affording more detailed scientific measurements of the candidate sites. In parallel, the operations and flight dynamics teams have been exploring options for delivering the lander to all five candidate landing sites.

Over the weekend, the Landing Site Selection Group of engineers and scientists from Philae's Science, Operations and Navigation Centre at France's CNES space agency, the Lander Control Centre at DLR, scientists representing the Philae Lander instruments and ESA's Rosetta team met at CNES, Toulouse, France, to consider the available data and to choose the primary and backup sites.

A number of critical aspects had to be considered, not least that it had to be possible to identify a safe trajectory for deploying Philae to the surface and that the density of visible hazards in the landing zone should be minimal. Once on the surface, other factors come into play, including the balance of daylight and nighttime hours, and the frequency of communications passes with the orbiter.

The descent to the comet is passive and it is only possible to predict that the landing point will place within a 'landing ellipse' typically a few hundred metres in size.

A one square kilometre area was assessed for each candidate site. At Site J, the majority of slopes are less than 30º relative to the local vertical, reducing the chances of Philae toppling over during touchdown. Site J also appears to have relatively few boulders, and receives sufficient daily illumination to recharge Philae and continue science operations on the surface beyond the initial battery-powered phase.

Provisional assessment of the trajectory to Site J found that the descent time of Philae to the surface would be about seven hours, a length that does not compromise the on-comet observations by using up too much of the battery during the descent.

Above: Close-up of Philae's primary landing site J, which is located on the 'head' of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The image was taken by Rosetta's OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 20 August 2014 from a distance of about 67 km. The image scale is 1.2 metres/pixel. (ESA)

Both Sites B and C were considered as the backup, but C was preferred because of a higher illumination profile and fewer boulders. Sites A and I had seemed attractive during first rounds of discussion, but were dismissed at the second round because they did not satisfy a number of the key criteria.

A detailed operational timeline will now be prepared to determine the precise approach trajectory of Rosetta in order to deliver Philae to Site J. The landing must take place before mid-November, as the comet is predicted to grow more active as it moves closer to the Sun.

"There's no time to lose, but 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."

Once deployed from Rosetta, Philae's descent will be autonomous, with commands having been prepared by the Lander Control Centre at DLR, and uploaded via Rosetta mission control before separation.

During the descent, images will be taken and other observations of the comet's environment will be made.

Once the lander touches down, at the equivalent of walking pace, it will use harpoons and ice screws to fix it onto the surface. It will then make a 360° panoramic image of the landing site to help determine where and in what orientation it has landed.

The initial science phase will then begin, with other instruments analysing the plasma and magnetic environment, and the surface and subsurface temperature. The lander will also drill and collect samples from beneath the surface, delivering them to the onboard laboratory for analysis. The interior structure of the comet will also be explored by sending radio waves through the surface towards Rosetta.

"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."

The landing date should be confirmed on 26 September after further trajectory analysis and the final Go/No Go for a landing at the primary site will follow a comprehensive readiness review on 14 October.

Robert PearlmanEuropean Space Agency (ESA) release
Rosetta to deploy lander on November 12

The European Space Agency's Rosetta mission will deploy its lander, Philae, to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko on Nov. 12.

Philae's landing site, currently known as Site J, is located on the smaller of the comet's two 'lobes', with a backup site on the larger lobe. The sites were selected just six weeks after Rosetta arrived at the comet on Aug. 6, following its 10-year journey through the Solar System.

In that time, the Rosetta mission has been conducting an unprecedented scientific analysis of the comet, a remnant of the Solar System's 4.6 billion-year history. The latest results from Rosetta will be presented on the occasion of the landing, during dedicated press briefings.

The main focus to date has been to survey 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in order to prepare for the first ever attempt to soft-land on a comet.

Site J was chosen unanimously over four other candidate sites as the primary landing site because the majority of terrain within a square kilometre area has slopes of less than 30º relative to the local vertical and because there are relatively few large boulders. The area also receives sufficient daily illumination to recharge Philae and continue surface science operations beyond the initial 64-hour battery-powered phase.

Over the last two weeks, the flight dynamics and operations teams at ESA have been making a detailed analysis of flight trajectories and timings for Rosetta to deliver the lander at the earliest possible opportunity.

Two robust landing scenarios have been identified, one for the primary site and one for the backup. Both anticipate separation and landing on Nov. 12.

For the primary landing scenario, targeting Site J, Rosetta will release Philae at 08:35 GMT/09:35 CET at a distance of 22.5 km from the centre of the comet, landing about seven hours later. The one-way signal travel time between Rosetta and Earth on Nov. 12 is 28 minutes 20 seconds, meaning that confirmation of the landing will arrive at Earth ground stations at around 16:00 GMT/17:00 CET.

If a decision is made to use the backup Site C, separation will occur at 13:04 GMT/14:04 CET, 12.5 km from the centre of the comet. Landing will occur about four hours later, with confirmation on Earth at around 17:30 GMT/18:30 CET. The timings are subject to uncertainties of several minutes.

Final confirmation of the primary landing site and its landing scenario will be made on Oct. 14 after a formal Lander Operations Readiness Review, which will include the results of additional high-resolution analysis of the landing sites conducted in the meantime. Should the backup site be chosen at this stage, landing can still occur on Nov. 12.

A competition for the public to name the primary landing site will also be announced during the week of Oct. 14.

The Rosetta orbiter will continue to study the comet and its environment using its 11 science instruments as they orbit the Sun together. The comet is on an elliptical 6.5-year orbit that takes it from beyond Jupiter at its furthest point, to between the orbits of Mars and Earth at its closest to the Sun. Rosetta will accompany the comet for more than a year as they swing around the Sun and back to the outer Solar System again.

The analyses made by the Rosetta orbiter will be complemented by the in situ measurements performed by Philae's 10 instruments.

See here for discussion of ESA's Rosetta probe and Philae lander to Comet 67P.

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