Rosetta mission prepares first-ever comet landing for 12 November

29 Sep 2014

Site J on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission is set to reach its climax on 12 November, when the orbiter will deploy a lander to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Site J, located on the smaller of the comet’s two lobes, has been selected as the primary landing site from five options due to its favourable terrain.

With this site in mind as the primary destination, the ESA’s flight dynamics and operations teams have been analysing flight trajectories and timings for the past two weeks with a view to landing the Rosetta lander Philae at the earliest possible opportunity.

If the team goes ahead with the landing planned for Site J, the Rosetta orbiter will release Philae at 8.35am UTC on 12 November and it will land about seven hours later.

However, if the primary site is deemed unsuitable after further review, a back-up site on the comet’s larger lobe has been identified and robust landing scenarios have been identified for both locations.

A probe into the origins of the universe

Comet 67P is on an elliptical 6.5-year orbit that takes it beyond Jupiter and between the orbits of Mars and Earth.

Like all comets, it contains organic material left over from the formation of our solar system and studying this through both remote and in situ observations can inform scientists on the origins of the universe and perhaps even answer questions on the source of life on Earth.

The Rosetta mission is the first in history to rendez-vous with a comet and the spacecraft successfully entered the comet’s orbit in August this year following a 10-year journey through the solar system.

Since then, the Rosetta spacecraft has been conducting scientific analysis of the comet using 11 instruments and the latest results will be released when Philae lands. Meanwhile, the orbiter will continue to study the comet and its environment as they orbit the sun together for more than a year.

A new name for Site J

Site J appears to have a square kilometre of terrain with slopes of less than 30 degrees and relatively few large boulders, while the area also receives enough daily light to recharge the solar-powered Philae so that it can operate beyond its initial 64-hour battery-powered phase.

The final decision on the plans to launch and land Philae will be made on 14 October after a formal review, after which a competition for the public to name the landing site will be launched.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.