Early tomorrow (Wednesday) morning the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft currently orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko will deploy a lander called Philae. This one-chance-only attempt will be the culmination of a ten year mission to do something that has never been done or even attempted before – to put a piece of human-made machinery on the face of a speeding comet as it hurtles towards the sun.
There is so much that intrigues me about this – not the least of which is the method of landing – described in this New York Times article..
Because Comet 67P is so small, its gravitational pull is slight and the familiar mechanics of landing on a moon or a distant planet are turned upside down. Mission planners didn’t have to worry so much about breaking the lander’s fall because Philae will be released and will drift towards 67P, pulled in gently at what is described as “a walking pace.”
How fast is that? I’m not sure, but I’ll bet it could comfortably approximate the pace of this classic 1959 song by the Fleetwoods.
As the lander meanders towards the comet, planners will watch nervously to see if they are able to connect in a sympathetic and constructive way, or if a stray boulder causes the lander to flip over or a spot of shade renders its solar collectors useless.
Not to indulge in too much space-vehicle anthropomorphism here, but if Philae is able to kiss the surface of this elusive, enigmatic space traveler, it will be a brief, unlikely, and historic romance. The lander will run out of battery power in 62 hours and will fall silent, but not until it has had enough close contact to send back a treasure trove of data.
And what is in this for 67P? Perhaps nothing, though one must wonder if even a lonely, speeding comet has an innate desire to be known. And yes, this Earthling may bring just the sort of longed-for intimacy that has been missing during all the years that 67P has been orbiting the sun.
But in case The Fleetwoods have you thinking of this rendezvous as a perfect extraterrestrial romance, consider this one additional aspect – shortly after Philae and 67P gently touch, the lander will cement their new relationship by shooting a harpoon into the comets surface.
Charming. And such an Earthling thing to do.
Ever been stung?