The Year 2014 – Philae Makes Earth’s First Ever Landing on a Comet

This is a six part series commemorating the major events of 2014. More information can be found after the article.

For the first time ever, on Wednesday, November 12, 2014, Earth landed a probe on a comet. It wasn’t completely without error, but still an amazing and important first.

Digital sketch for (not an actual print): Philae Makes Earth's First Ever Landing on a Comet

Digital sketch for (not an actual print): Philae Makes Earth's First Ever Landing on a Comet

The plan was to launch the Philae lander from Rosetta. Philae would land on the surface of the comet, launch harpoons to anchor it because of the very little amount of gravity present, then use it’s instruments to collect atmospheric and environmental data during a short window of time powered by by an internal battery that would be recharged via solar panels.

 

But when Philae touched down in it’s planned position on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the harpoons didn’t fire. At first we didn’t know if the lander had successfully completed it’s landing operation because of a 28 minute delay in communications from the lander to Earth. When data started coming in, the team was receiving confusing results. The data was confusing because Philae was not on the surface but rebounding back into space.

Then there was worry. Would Philae exit the comets gravity and be lost to space? It did in fact return to the surface nearly 2 hours later to then bounce once again. Finally the comet settled on the rim of a crater. The significance of this is that the lander wasn’t where it needed to be to receive the anticipated amount of solar power to lengthen it’s time “awake”. This affected it immediately where it’s initial period of data gathering was shortened significantly, but also in the future where it’s planned position was to give it a healthy amount of sun and reawaken and provide a wealth of additional information.

Philae’s mission was to send back to earth data about the comets makeup and atmosphere to hopefully give us some insight that might confirm hypotheses such as that Earth’s water may have come from impacts from comets. Interestingly enough we did get some data that may have denied this particular hypothesis.

Now we wait and see if the sun will reawaken Philae or not. Missions to rescue the lander using Rossettas few remaining resources are being contemplated and the payoffs carefully weighed. What will be it’s fate?


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This is one in a 6 part series designed to commemorate the various major events of 2014.

  1. February 7–23, 2014: Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia
  2. Saturday, March 8, 2014: The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370
  3. June 12, 2014 – July 13, 2014: Brazil hosts World Cup
  4. Saturday, August 9, 2014: Cop shoots teenager in Ferguson, Missouri
  5. September – October 2014: Ebola spreads fear in United States
  6. Wednesday, November 12, 2014: Philae Makes Earth's First Ever Landing on a Comet