Witty World

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Rendezvous with Rosetta’s historic Comet mission

As Rosetta’s countdown to comet landing had begun, the students of WIS Pawan Baug embarked on a wonderful journey to Nehru Science Center, where NSC along with the European Space Agency had arranged an interactive session for students to learn about this extraordinary achievement in space history. Who could have ever thought that one day we could land on a comet?
The session was conducted by Astronomer and Curator of NSC, Saket Singh Kaurav in collaboration with European Space Agency. Wittians attended a  Popular Science Lecture & film screening on the International mission at the Centre.
The students learnt that  the spaceship Rosetta left Earth in 2004 and has been chasing 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for the last decade. In August it finally caught up with the speeding comet and has spent the last few months studying the lump of rock and looking for a suitable landing spot.
Students were aware that on 12th November, Rosetta will release a landing probe – called Philae – which will drop down to the surface. It will be the first time a soft landing has ever been attempted. Comets are the primitive building blocks of the Solar System, left over from a planet-building time when our Sun was just a spinning disc of dust and gas. Made of ice, dust and small rocky particles, it is likely they delivered the first water to Earth and may have even seeded the planet with the building blocks for life. The comet is currently hurtling through space at 24,600 miles per hour and its nucleus is only 2.5 miles wide. Scientists compare the task to a fly trying to land on a speeding bullet.
And the surface is a jumble of cliffs, boulders and steep slopes. If Philae is released when Rosetta is just 1cm out of alignment it could fall hundreds of metres away from the chosen landing spot. Rosetta has already been travelling for more than a decade after the craft was launched on March 2 2004, from Kourou, French Guiana. But the comet is moving far faster than speeds which could ever be achieved by a space ship leaving Earth. So the craft has spent the time since, using the gravitational pull of the Earth and Mars to act as a sling shot and allow it to pick up acceleration.
When it reached the crucial speed in July 2011 the spacecraft was put into deep-space hibernation for the coldest, most distant leg of the journey as it travelled some 497 million miles from the Sun, close to the orbit of Jupiter as the comet headed into outer Solar System. It was woken up in January for the final leg of its journey. Philae, is around 35 cubic feet in size and is named after an island on the river Nile, where an obelisk was found there containing an inscription which played an important role in deciphering the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta stone. The lander will send back a panorama of its surroundings and high-resolution pictures of the surface and will perform analysis of the composition of the ices and organic material.
Students understood that a drill will take samples from 8-11 inches below the surface, feeding them to Philae’s laboratory for analysis. Rosetta will then stay alongside the comet as it moves closer to the Sun. Instruments on board will analyse the gases of the tail; probe the comets interior; measure dust grains and study its atmosphere and gravity.
After a nail biting wait where we have been following the live feeds from ESA, the Wittians are also thrilled to report that the lander Philae was confirmed to touch down on the surface of the comet more than 300 million miles away at 11:05 a.m. Eastern. This is indeed a moment of triumph for the human race.



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