On March 29, 2011, a TEXUS-49 rocket took off from northern Sweden for a short trip into space and back through Earth’s sheltering blanket of atmosphere. This amazing feat of engineering has become surprisingly routine — we humans have gotten to the point where launching a vehicle into space to carry out an experiment or deliver a satellite into orbit no longer inspires awe and wonder. Sounding rockets are commonly used as sub-orbital research platforms. In this case, one of the experiments on the mission was a test of how well DNA molecules can survive the temperatures involved in plummeting back through Earth’s atmosphere. The results, published earlier this year in PLOS ONE, show that DNA is tough enough to make it through atmospheric re-entry after a quick jaunt in space. Continue reading
Earlier today, the Rosetta lander Philae successfully docked with the comet it’s going to study, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko! By now, the lander is busily doing science on the surface of a comet. Not bad for a robot built by a bunch of curious apes! Congratulations to everyone involved, and thanks for all the hard work!
Over the next few days, Philae will take plenty of pictures of the landing site, analyse the comet’s surface materials, drill out a chunk of the comet for analysis in the onboard laboratory, and measure the electrical and mechanical properties of the surface. It will also cooperate with Rosetta to study the comet’s internal structure by sending low-frequency radio waves through it. Philae’s primary battery will only last for a few days; after that, a secondary, rechargeable battery may keep it going until March if the solar panels don’t get blocked.
Rosetta’s job isn’t over yet. While Philae is studying the comet up-close, the spacecraft will keep orbiting the comet as it gets closer and closer to the Sun. In August, the comet will be at its closest to the Sun — ‘only’ 185 million kilometers, which is still slightly farther out than the Earth’s orbit. Rosetta will ride through the approach and stay with it on the outward journey, beaming back data the whole way. So there’s a lot to look forward to from Philae in the coming days and from Rosetta in the coming months!
The picture, courtesy of the ESA, was taken by Philae during its descent; the lander was about 3km above the comet’s surface. Congratulations to the Rosetta team!
Hello again, Rosetta! After a ten year journey, the spacecraft is only 16km from the comet it’s been sent to explore. Earlier this week, it sent back this selfie showing one of its solar panels and the comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. It’s an awe-inspiring image. A decade ago, we hurled this little ship out into cold, dark space. It looped around the solar system several times, sending back pictures of Mars and Earth as it looped past us to pick up speed. Barrelling out past the Mars’ orbit, it went to sleep to conserve power. Thanks to the hard work and careful planning of the ESA team, it managed to rendez-vous with the 4km wide comet after a journey of over 6 billion kilometers! That’s amazing! And now it’s sending back pictures as the two of them flirt and dance around each other while Rosetta looks for a place to put down its lander, Philae. Well done, humankind! And congratulations to the Rosetta team!
There’ll be more news next month, when the docking itself should take place. Once on the comet, Philae will send back data for anywhere from a few days to a few months — we simply don’t know how long it will last on the comet’s surface.
The picture is, of course, from the ESA. Well done!
In the cold reaches of space millions of kilometers from Earth, a ten-year journey is coming to an end and an era of discovery is about to begin. Rosetta, a spacecraft built and launched by the ESA has finally reached its target, meeting up with the comet 67P/Curyumov-Gerasimenko somewhere between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. We don’t have any vehicles powerful enough to launch Rosetta into the same orbit as the comet, so it’s been a long and lonely trip for the little craft, slingshoting its way around the solar system to make the trip. “After ten years, five months and four days travelling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4 billion kilometers, we are delighted to finally announce ‘we are here'”, said Jean-Jacques Dordain, the director general of the ESA. Continue reading
You might hear about Rosetta in the news later this week, so I decided to give my readers a head-start with an introduction to the mission and its objectives, as well as an idea of what to expect. Continue reading
This morning, the European Space Agency (ESA) released the results from the Planck mission, a satellite designed to peer back at the earliest fraction of a second of the universe. It’s not our first glimpse of those early moments, but it’s the best look we’ve had to date. While the data from the Planck mission doesn’t overturn our understanding of the universe, it’s a treasure trove for theoretical physicists and brings some exciting questions to the fore.