By J.W. Schnarr
Last week, Nov. 12 to be precise, mankind took another giant leap forward with a small step from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft when it rendezvoused with comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and sent its Philae lander to the surface to investigate.
Yes, we have actually landed a space ship on a comet. This has to be impressive news for just about everyone in the world – everyone, except for Bruce Willis, who probably sniffed and said something along the lines of, “Big deal. I did that back in ’98.”
Armageddon? Anyone remember that movie?
Yeah, me either.
So what’s so awesome about landing a space craft on a comet? Well, for one thing, it’s cool as hell. But another thing is that it is nearly impossible to accomplish. This isn’t landing on a planet. This is a ball of ice and dust and rock travelling at about 24,600 miles per hour. It’s throwing all that material off as it shoots toward our sun. Scientists have compared the feat as something akin to a fly trying to land on a speeding bullet. Like I said, nearly impossible.
The Rosetta spacecraft was launched back in 2004, and has travelled a total of 6.4 billion kilometres. In fact, it is out by Jupiter at the moment, to give you an idea of the enormity of this project.
For 10 years, this little space ship was shooting off in space, using the orbits of both Earth and Mars as slingshots in order to get it up to a speed where it might have a hope of catching the comet.
Kind of like a dozen Star Trek films, where they shoot around the sun to get up to 88 mph before going nova with the flux capacitor and allowing them to travel back in time to make sure Captain Kirk’s parents dance at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance and stop the Borg from changing the future.
In fact, this thing is so far away from the sun that scientists actually turned it off for more than two years and allowed it to shoot toward its goal without using what little power it could manage off its solar cells.
Comets are like little time capsules which can tell us a lot about the early days of the solar system. Currently, we get our comets from the Kuiper Belt and the Oort cloud, parts of our solar system that lie out past the planets in our solar system.
Think of these regions as the cookie dough scraps left over after you’ve rolled the dough and cut all your circle cookies out. Comets are the leftovers from when the solar system formed. They may be able to tell us a lot about those early days.
Before the landing, Rosetta was in orbit around the comet and studied the gases surrounding it as it hurtles through space. It found the presence of water, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. It also found ammonia, methane, and methanol, as well as hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen cyanide.
These molecules contain oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, and are part of the Legos used to construct more complex structures, such as Jennifer Lawrence.
The comet, then, may well smell like a dirty cat litter box filled with rotten eggs and burnt almonds. Oh, and it could further support the idea that comets act as a type of seed, carrying with them water and the elements required to kick start life on a previously quiet planet. Say, Earth, for example.
Unfortunately for us, we may have to wait a bit longer in order to peel back all the secrets of the comet like scientists had first hoped. It seems as though that landing on the comet wasn’t quite as picture-perfect as we needed it to be. Philae has found itself behind a ledge shielding it from the sun’s rays.
You know those things that make your old 1970s calculater run? They also make the lander run.
And without some sunshine on its solar panels, it has been unable to keep its batteries charged. As a result, it went into a deep sleep and is no longer transmitting much in the way of earthshattering science.
But fear not! The ESA is hopeful that they have done enough to adjust the angle of the solar panels so that when the comet gets closer to the sun, say, in a year or two, it may just scoop up enough power to begin transmitting again. In the meantime, we’ll just have to cross our fingers and hope for the best.