Tomorrow, I’m going to be keeping a close eye on the news. Tomorrow, around 4pm GMT, we will hopefully be receiving confirmation that the European Space Agency have actually landed a spacecraft on a comet.
The probe Rosetta, which went into space in 2004, has now been orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko since August, sending back spectacular images and data. Tomorrow comes the next stage of the mission: it will drop its lander, Philae, towards the comet.
Because the comet is so far away and the signal delay is so great, there’s no way that anyone on Earth can control the descent; indeed, Philae can’t even do that on its own. There’s no guarantee that it will come down in a suitable area, and even if it does, it will have to deploy harpoons just to stay where it is. Even if Philae is sent on its way perfectly, success is by no means assured.
As our unmanned missions into space get more and more ambitious in the quest to make new discoveries, the difficulty becomes greater too, and it takes serious ingenuity to pull it off. The Mars Science Laboratory mission, which arrived at Mars in 2012, involved getting a rover the size of a car down to the surface in one piece. Such a heavy piece of machinery couldn’t descend safely just by parachute; it needed not only thrusters to slow its descent in the final stages, but a crane system to lower it the last few metres. And then that skycrane had to fly away so it didn’t land on the rover. And as with Philae, there was nothing Mission Control could do but watch and wait.
So many things could have gone wrong – but the Curiosity rover made it to Mars perfectly, and is still trundling around there today.
Just think about this. We may only have one operational system for getting humans into space right now, but we’ve still achieved an awful lot. We have a permanently manned space station in Earth orbit, sometimes even visible from down here on the surface. We have multiple spacecraft orbiting and driving on Mars. We have a probe that’s going to arrive at Pluto next year and give us our first detailed look at what was once the Solar System’s ninth planet. We have another probe in orbit around a comet – and, fingers crossed, is going to land on it. This is like stuff out of science fiction, and it deserves appreciation.
Some may ask what the purpose of it all is. Certainly, what Rosetta learns about comets could have practical uses in the future. But I don’t see anything wrong with simply seeking to increase our knowledge. There’s a reason the Mars Science Laboratory rover is named Curiosity.
So here’s hoping for good things from Rosetta and Philae, and for future space missions to come!