Big news today for everyone involved in and following the ROSETTA mission to Comet 67P – after much deliberation, Landing Site “J” has been confirmed as the primary landing site for ROSETTA’s “Philae” lander, and on November 12th the European Space Agency will attempt Mankind’s historic first landing on a comet here…
That’s my sharpened and enhanced version of an image released today accompanying the official press announcement , which you can find here…
And here’s a sharpened and enhanced crop of the central part of that image, zooming on on Philae’s landing site…
I can only imagine the thoughts and fears running through the minds of the Philae and ROSETTA teams as they look at these images. There’s so much at stake on the 12th, when little Philae drifts away from ROSETTA and then begins to fall down to the surface of 67P, SO much. This is truly Europe’s Apollo Moment. Just like the Moon landings, nothing like this has ever been attempted before, and it will be a long, long time before anything like this is ever attempted again. Not even NASA has tried to do this, it’s so hard, so ridiculously hard.
Make no mistake about it, this is genuinely history making, and it may not work.
What is he saying??? Of COURSE it will work! They ALWAYS pull this stuff off! No. “They” don’t. Sometimes missions fail, and Philae’s may fail, cruelly, when she’s so close to her goal. There’s a very real possibility that Something Will Go Wrong on Nov 12th. Philae might not even detach from ROSETTA – a computer command may go unheard, a mechanism might fail, a line of software might be faulty – and might just stay there, clutching at ROSETTA for dear life, like a parachutist refusing to jump out of the plane. Or Philae might detach just fine, only for something to wrong when she lands. She may land in a pit of cometary quickdust and sink into, like a baby mammoth in a tar pit, it before she even has time to cry for help. Or she may hit a boulder and be smashed to pieces, her remains, shiny as the fragments of Christmas tree baubles, left scattered over the dark, cold ice. Or she may land just fine, only for her radio to fail, leaving her stranded on the surface, healthy and hearty, but mute, or deaf, or both. That would be the cruelest fate of all.
If everything goes according to plan, on November 12th Philae will fall away from the albatross-winged probe which held her inside her arms and carried her safely halfway across the solar system, past asteroids and worlds, through a decade of cold and darkness, and drop down towards that 4km chunk of ancient, gnarled ice and dust as black as squid ink which has been tumbling around the Sun for countless mlilennia, and set down there, exactly as planned, in some sweet, safe place amongst the boulders and scree fields, between the crumbling ledges and the dust-covered slopes. And then, soon after, with the world watching, she will send back the first images ever taken on the surface of a comet, images which will feature in a whole generation of astronomy books.
And the best thing of all is we will all be there too. We’ll be able to follow events on our computers, tablets and phones (on our phones!!! Isn’t that insane! People will be following the landing on their phones, sat at work, or on a bus, or as they sit in their gardens! When ROSETTA was launched no-one on the planet HAD an iPhone! There was no such thing as Twitter!) as they unfold, and even as the ROSETTA team are cheering in Mission Control, hugging each other, slapping each others backs and punching the air with delight, triumph and relief, the first picture sent back by Philae will flash around the globe, to feature on TV news broadcasts and be posted on every space enthusiast’s blog, forum, Twitter feed and Facebook page, each time shouting out to the world “Look what we did! Look what Mankind did! We landed on a comet! A COMET!!!”
That will be a helluva thing, won’t it? I’ve taken the day off work so I can sit here, with my laptop on my knee, drinking in the whole thing. I don’t want to miss a moment of that day, and my heart will be in my mouth – when my mouth isn’t full of tea and chocolate biscuits, of course – until Philae’s fate is revealed.
If Philae lands safely, Europe will have done something truly spectacular, something that NASA, the Russians and everyone else will marvel at. And they will deserve it. The ROSETTA mission is exploration in its purest form, a mission to Know Somewhere New, and everyone in Europe should be proud that their space agency was even brave enough to try such a sphincter-tighteningly frightening thing.
But if something goes wrong on the 12th – and we really, truly, honestly must accept that possibility exists – and Philae fails, it’s important everyone remembers that Philae is really the icing on the cake of a mission which has already been one of the most successful in the history of space exploration. Since leaving Earth ROSETTA has sent back breathtaking images of Earth, and Mars, flown by and studied asteroids, and rendezvoused with a comet in deep, deep space. Since arriving at 67P ROSETTA has sent back stunning pictures which have revolutionised our image and understanding of comets. The science ROSETTA’s instruments has already done will keep astronomers busy for a generation, and lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the nature of the solar system’s most enigmatic members. So if Philae meets some terrible doom on or above the surface of 67P it will be awful, of course, but no-one should consider the ROSETTA mission itself a failure. ROSETTA’s primary mission was to reach 67P and study it as intensively as possible, AND try to land Philae on it. So whatever happens on the 12th ROSETTA will already have been a stunning success, and when the 12th turns to the 13th there will still be many exciting months of work ahead for the ROSETTA team, as the probe accompanies the comet on its journey to, around and away again from the Sun. We’ll see 67P waking up, bursting to life, maybe even splitting in two, and then falling quiet again before ROSETTA’s mission ends. If that prospect doesn’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, then nothing will.
So, Philae’s landing site is confirmed. It’s “J”, and we are now less than a month away from what will go down in history as one of the most thrilling days in the space age. It’s important to understand just how hard it will be to land on 67P. This really is ESA’s version of a Mars rover landing, or, as I said, a Moon landing. This truly is Europe’s Apollo Moment. Whatever happens on the 12th, ESA will never be the same again, nor will science. It’s that important.
So, best wishes to everyone on the ROSETTA mission. You’ve already done incredible things, shown us incredible sights, and carried out incredible science. If Philae lands safely on the 12th we will cheer and shout and cry with you, and set out on a new adventure beside you. But if it doesn’t, know this: we are proud of you now, and will be proud of you whatever happens on that day.
Now go, and catch that comet!
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