Launched in 2005, the European Space Agency’s Venus Express successfully entered orbit around our cloud-shrouded neighboring world. Now, after more than eight and a half years of scientific observations Venus Express has run out of fuel and will soon go gentle into that good night – that is if by “going gentle” you mean death-diving into the corrosive, sulfuric acid-laden atmosphere of an intensely overheated planet.
“While we are sad that this mission is ended, we are nevertheless happy to reflect on the great success of Venus Express as part of ESA’s planetary science program and are confident that its data will remain important legacy for quite some time to come.”
— Martin Kessler, Head of ESA Science Operations
Many of the images we’ve been seeing of the craggy surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, as incredible as they are, are still monochrome. Now Rosetta’s OSIRIS team has released a true-color image of the comet taken with it high-res science imaging instrument… but even then it’s still pretty much grey.
On Wednesday, Nov. 12 2014, after over ten years and literally hundreds of millions of miles of travel, ESA’s Rosetta mission successfully put its Philae lander down on the surface of a tumbling comet 316 million miles from Earth. While Philae’s long-awaited landing was deemed a success, if just in that all primary mission science data was returned for its on-board experiments, it didn’t go without some hitches: while Philae did in fact touch down on comet 67P/C-G almost exactly where planned its dual harpoons failed to fire, causing the 220-pound robot to rebound off the comet’s surprisingly hard surface and soar to another location… twice.
Unfortunately how Philae finally came to rest was at a tilt within a shadowed location, its solar panels shielded from the Sun. So once it began its science observations and communicating its findings with Rosetta orbiting nine miles overhead, Philae’s battery quickly ran out of voltage, eventually putting the robot into a low-power hibernation mode. But during Philae’s approach and initial bounce off the comet’s surface Rosetta’s OSIRIS imaging instrument captured it on camera – sort of a cometary version of “Where’s Waldo?” Check out the images above.
History has been made! At 11:03 a.m. EST / 16:03 UTC today, Nov. 12 2014, during an event telecast live online, ESA received confirmation from its Philae lander that it successfully touched down and attached to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, currently 509.5 million km (316 million miles) from Earth. It is the first time a human-made spacecraft has ever soft-landed on a comet… a truly momentous accomplishment! This is a real testament to the capability of teams of people across the world working together to achieve something amazing for the sake of science and knowledge. Go Philae! Congratulations ESA!
“How audacious! How exciting! How unbelievable to be able to land on a comet!” said Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Director on location at ESA Operations Center in Germany during the landing event.
UPDATE: The image above is a mosaic of two images taken by one of Philae’s three CIVA (Comet Infrared and Visible Analyzer) cameras from its final landing position. Philae’s “foot” can be seen in the lower foreground. That’s basically like you standing on the comet and looking down at your feet!
Unfortunately the news is not all good… read more below.
In less than a week, on November 12, 2014, the Philae lander will separate from ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft and descend several kilometers down to the dark, dusty and frozen surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Its three spindly legs and rocket-powered harpoon are all that will keep the 100-kilogram spacecraft from crashing or bouncing hopelessly back out into space. It will be the culmination of a decade-long voyage across the inner Solar System, a testament to human ingenuity and inventiveness and a shining example of the incredible things we can achieve through collaboration.
But first, Philae has to get there… to touch down safely in the chosen site (named Agilkia, after a small island in the Nile) and successfully become, as designed, the first human-made object to soft-land on a comet. How will the little spacecraft pull off such a daring maneuver around a tumbling chunk of icy rubble traveling over 18 kilometers a second? The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has released a video about the event, with a finale worthy of the best sci-fi film. Watch it above, and follow along with the landing on Twitter with the hashtag #CometLanding.
Want a more playful version of Rosetta and Philae’s upcoming adventure? Check out the latest animated video from ESA below:
The long-awaited deployment of the Philae lander, currently “piggybacked” aboard ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft orbiting the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, will occur in less than a month and we now have our best look yet at the area now green-lighted for touchdown. The picture above, made from two images acquired by Rosetta’s OSIRIS imaging instrument, shows a 500-meter circle centered on “Site J,” a spot on the comet’s “head” carefully chosen by mission scientists as the best place in which Philae should land, explore, and ultimately travel around the Sun for the rest of its days. And as of yesterday Oct. 15, it’s a GO!
ALSO: Don’t like the name “Site J?” Have a better idea? You can help give it a real name! Enter ESA’s contest to #Name J here.
In-situ spacecraft “selfies” are always a treat and this one is awesome times two: taken by the Philae lander piggybacked onto ESA’s Rosetta, it shows one of the spacecraft’s 14-meter-long (46-foot) solar arrays glinting with reflected sunlight while off in the distance is the “rubber duckie” Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko!