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Comet mission could offer clues about the 'origins of us'

Sharon Gaudin | Nov. 17, 2014
With the European Space Agency's robotic lander now sitting on a comet hurtling in orbit around the sun, the 10-year trip is over and the real science of the mission has begun.

With the European Space Agency's robotic lander now sitting on a comet hurtling in orbit around the sun, the 10-year trip is over and the real science of the mission has begun.

That means scientists may get valuable clues about the origins of the sun and planets, as well as Earth's oceans and even ourselves.

"We're looking at the big picture here," said Andrew Westphal, a physicist and associate director of the Space Sciences Laboratory at U.C. Berkeley. "The reason why it's so important to study comets is that they're really the building blocks of the solar system. This is a chance to study primitive materials. It could tell us about our own origins.

"It's not just about the origins of the sun and planets but about the origins of us."

On Wednesday, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft launched a robotic probe, dubbed Philae, onto comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. While Rosetta continues in orbit around the comet, Philae will have about two and a half days to study the comet's composition and how it reacts to the approaching heat of the sun.

After that, the probe's battery is expected to run out.

As a result, the scientists behind the mission — the first to ever land a probe on a comet — have a short amount of time to learn as much as they can.

The European Space Agency said during a news conference on Thursday that the lander had already begun using its instruments, taking six images for a panoramic view of the comet and collecting magnetic field measurements.

"It has proved that it's working, communicating and making scientific measurements," said Jean-Pierre Bibring, the lander's lead scientist. "A lot of science is getting covered now."

Tonight, the science team will upload the latest instructions to tell the lander what scientific experiments to conduct later at night and Friday, according to Stephan Ulamec, the Philae lander manager. The probe has 10 scientific instruments.

One concern with having the lander deploy its instruments is that it is not securely attached to the comet and scientists are concerned that too much movement or thrust could move Philae or even bounce it off the surface back into space.

Philae had a few problems — actually a few bounces — when it touched down on Wednesday morning.

Ulamec reported that when the probe first hit the comet, traveling at about 3 feet per second, the lander's harpoons, which should have grabbed onto the surface, did not deploy. Without its harpoons fastened, the lander bounced about half a mile up into space and traveled about half a mile from its original landing spot before touching down again. After that, it had a second bounce that lasted about 7 minutes.

 

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