Noteworthy News

Bridges vol. 42, December 2014 / Noteworthy Information 

By Rosemary Grant 

ESA Rosetta Heat Shield

The Rosetta mission made history on November 14, 2014, by being the first to make a controlled landing on a comet with a probe. The probe, Philae, was created through the collaboration of several European nations.

After 10 years of traveling through space, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft reached comet 67P in August 2014, becoming the first spacecraft to orbit a comet. It then launched Philae, its lander, onto the comet to successfully become the first controlled comet landing. This particular comet had been traveling around the sun at about 84,000 miles per hour, just one of the many challenges of landing on a comet. The touchdown and 64 hours of experiments answered many questions about what comets are made of and provided key details about the origin of the solar system and life, taken from analyses of dust from the landing. Ten instruments on the probe measured the matter on the comet, thought to contain molecules present since the beginning of the solar system.

The Austrian Space Research Institute gained recognition for its technology that provided Philae with an anchor and two sensors within Multi Purpose Sensors for Surface and Subsurface Science (MUPUS). The MUPUS sensors, located in the anchor, measured thermal and physical properties on the surface of the comet.

The sensors were key for keeping the lander functioning in space. On the side facing the sun, the spacecraft could be subjected to 200o C, while on the side facing away from the sun it would need to operate at -200o C. "Over this temperature range, no instruments, no electronic devices would work, so you need special insulating sheaths that consist of many individual layers and with which it is possible to keep the inner life of the satellite in a temperature range from minus 20 to about plus 50 degrees," said Max Kowatsch, CEO of RUAG Space Austria, which developed the outer skin of the probe.

RUAG Space Austria also developed a device that incorporated an atomic force microscope for analyzing comet dust. "It's about the measurement of particles in the nanometer range, and a nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter, so really very small particles that can be measured with the help of this device," said Kowatsch.

After the success of this touchdown, a team of European scientists has developed a second Philae landing craft, called MASCOT, for future missions. MASCOT (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout) is launching with Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft to achieve a landing on an asteroid by June 2018. 

The future of Philae depends on energy. As it gets closer to the sun, ESA hopes that Philae will be able to reheat and then charge its drowned batteries through its solar panels. This would allow the continuation of experiments on the surface and below. The closest encounter of comet 67P with the sun will be on August 13, 2015. However, the heat may pose some challenges not only for 67P, but also for Philae and its instruments. 

Rosetta will accompany the comet in this endeavor. There is even a chance that ESA will land Rosetta on 67P. If the duck-shaped comet breaks apart and Rosetta could land in that area, this would enable additional insights into the origins of the universe. Stay tuned. for further developments!

Rosemary Grant is the BRIDGES Chief Editor and communications manager of the Office of Science and Technology Austria in Washington, DC. Connect with her and the office on Twitter @OSTAustria_DC.