Friday, 21 November 2014

The First Landing on a Comet

Released from the Rosetta orbiter, the fridge-sized Philae lander drifts down to become the first spacecraft to land on a comet. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA 

And the second, and the third...

At 8.35 GMT last Wednesday morning, five hundred million kilometres from the Earth, a tiny lander called Philae detached from the side of the Rosetta spacecraft. 28 minutes later the signal confirming the separation arrived at ESA’s Space Operation Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany. The first ever attempt to land a spacecraft on a comet had begun.

Unlike most spacecraft landings, Philae would not land using rocket engines or parachutes. Rosetta had pushed it away in (it was hoped) just the right direction, at just the right speed to fall gently down onto its target.

The target was Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, an irregular lump of dust and ice less than five kilometres across at its widest point. Separating from Rosetta 22.5 kilometres from the surface, the low gravity of Comet 67P pulled Philae into a leisurely, seven-hour descent. 

As it fell towards Comet 67P, Philae had time to spin round and take a picture of Rosetta...
Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA 
...whilst Rosetta watched Philae disappear into the darkness.
Imaged during its descent by Rosetta's OSIRIS camera in the sequence above, Philae is a 100kg box filled with ten scientific instruments, including cameras, spectrometers, a drill and two labs for analysing surface samples. And, crucially, two harpoons.

These harpoons were to fire as Philae touched down onto the surface of the comet, anchoring itself securely to 67P. The plan had been for a small thruster on the top of the lander to ignite at the same time, holding Philae down onto the surface. But that morning, the team at mission control had discovered that the thruster had stopped working. Only the harpoons could stop Philae from rebounding off the surface of Churyumov–Gerasimenko and back into space.

A picture of the first landing site from 40 meters above the surface. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR
At this point I had to go to a seminar, and spent the next tow hours failing to pay attention to the speaker whilst surreptitiously checking Twitter for news. If Tom Shanks is reading this, then sorry! But I got out in time to celebrate with the rest of the world as, at 16.03 GMT, the signal arrived at ESOC: Philae had landed, the first spacecraft to touch down on a comet. There was much rejoicing.

But the celebrations were short lived. As the mission controllers studied the data relayed back by the orbiting Rosetta, they realised that the crucial harpoons had failed to deploy. Worse still, the signal from the lander was fading in and out, and the power being generated by its solar panels was varying wildly. By the evening, a tentative explanation had been found: Philae had bounced straight off the comet and gone into a spin.

In a series of incredibly detailed images, the orbiting Rosetta spacecraft tracks Philae's wild flight across the surface of Comet 67P. Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
By the next morning the full tale of the landing had been put together. Philae had landed at 15:34 GMT, thudding down in exactly the right place. But without the thruster or harpoons to hold it down, the tiny spacecraft had bounced back up again, heading off the comet at a leisurely 38cm/s. Thanks to the extremely low gravity of 67P, Philae flew over the surface for nearly two hours, flying almost a kilometre high. During that time the comet turned underneath it, the targeted landing site slipping away.

When Philae hit the ground again it made a second bounce, this time for only seven minutes. When it finally came to a halt, the lander was over a kilometre from the spot where it had first touched down. But exactly where Philae had ended up was a mystery.  
Panoramic view of Philae's landing site, with the spacecraft superimposed. It wasn't meant to be this dark... Image Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA
The first images from the landing site showed a very different place to the flat, sunny target. Philae appeared to be at a tilt, with one leg sicking into space. Worse still, the bulk of the lander's solar panels were in the shadow of a large cliff. If Philae wasn't able to move, then it would only get around 1.5 hours of sunlight each day- nowhere near enough to recharge it's batteries.

But Philae was designed with this scenario in mind. Although the solar panels would have allowed it to carry on working for several months, it had been built with enough battery power to complete all of its initial science observations. While the mission controllers pondered a way to move away from the cliff, Philae's ten instruments swung into action.

The ten scientific instruments Philae used to study the surface of Churyumov–Gerasimenko.  Image Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

The full results from the measurements made by Philae have yet to be released, but a few preliminary discoveries have been announced. Particularly intriguing was the data collected by the Multi-Purpose Sensors for Surface and Subsurface Science, or MUPUS. This instrument deployed a small hammer, deigned to dig into the surface of Churyumov–Gerasimenko and measure the temperature at different depths.

Surprisingly, even at it's most powerful setting, the hammer couldn't make a dent in the surface of 67P. The ground beneath Philae, long expected to be a porous, loosely bound mix of dust and ice, was actually rock-solid. Although this conflicted with accepted knowledge (always a good kind measurement to make), a solid ice crust would explain why Philae bounced so high after its first touchdown. The low density of the comet suggests that, beneath this icy crust, the material of Comet 67P is much less tightly packed.

Another instrument, the Cometary Sampling and Composition Experiment or COSAC, detected signs of organic chemical compounds on the surface of Comet 67P. These carbon-rich compounds, which give the comet its deep black colour, are one of the key reasons we are interested in these icy worlds. It is thought that many of the ingredients needed for life on Earth, such as water and some amino acids, were originally delivered here by impacting comets.

With battery power running low, Philae ran through all of it's remaining scientific instruments, drilling into the surface to collect material for its onboard laboratories, receiving and transmitting radar data from Rosetta to map the insides of the comet, and taking yet more images.

By the time its batteries finally gave out, Philae had achieved all of its planned science operations. Despite the bumpy landing, the mission had been a complete success.  
At 36 minutes past midnight on Saturday morning, mission control at ESOC lost contact with Philae. But there's still hope for the little lander. Just before its batteries gave out, Philae had managed to turn itself, bringing it's largest solar panel out of the shade into the faint sunlight.

As Churyumov–Gerasimenko flies ever closer to the Sun, there's a small chance that Philae's batteries will recharge. We may yet be hearing more from the tiny lander. Even if this is the end of Philae's epic adventure, Rosetta is still in orbit of the comet, continuing to revolutionize our knowledge of these tiny, mysterious worlds.

Note: you my have noticed that I haven't commented on #shirtstorm- it's outside the scope of what I wanted (and feel qualified) to talk about, but I recommend and broadly agree with articles like these on the issue.

Another Note: I've stared writing for Astrobites! These are daily summaries  of recent scientific papers, written by astronomy postgraduate students. The style is a bit more technical than this blog, but it's worth a look if you want to to keep up to date with astronomy research. I'll be writing there once a month, and my first post is here

Follow me on Twitter for new blogs.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

How to Watch the Comet Landing!

On the 12th of November the European Space Agency will make the first ever attempt to land a space probe on a comet. If all goes to plan, the Rosetta orbiter will deploy the Philae lander into a seven-hour drift onto the surface of Comet 67P  Churyumov–Gerasimenko.  I'll do a full blog after the event, but here's some hopefully useful bits and pieces to follow the high point of the Rosetta mission:

The first port of call is the ESA Livestream, where all the major events will be shown and new data announced. If I've made this work right, it should be playing above this paragraph. It can also be found (along with lots of other stuff) on the Rosetta homepage.

Timeline of Philae's seven-hour descent onto Comet 67P. The signal from a successful touchdown should arrive at or after 4pm GMT. Click on the image to enlarge. Image Credit: ESA 
Above are the key points in the landing sequence. A much more detailed version is available here.

Image of Philae's targeted landing site, known as Agilkia. Image Credit: ESA
A bit of a wider view: The image above shows the target landing site on the "head" of Comet 67P. It's been named  Agilka, after an island in the River Nile where the temple from the island of Philae was moved to avoid flooding caused by the building of a dam. Philae was the place where the Rosetta Stone was found.

Apart from the ESA Livestream, the best place to stay up to date with the landing is proably Twitter. I will be tweeting updates and my feed should hopefully be appearing below this paragraph. You should also have a look at #CometLanding.

Good luck Philae!

Friday, 7 November 2014

ALMA Spots Planets Forming Around a Young Star

High-resolution image of the protoplanetary disc around HL Tau, a young star roughly 450 light-years from Earth. The image, which was taken by the ALMA telescope, shows gaps and rings in the disc carved out by new-born planets. Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO) 
This morning the image at the top of this page was doing the rounds on Twitter. I, like several others, glanced at it and initially moved on. I've seen plenty of artist's impressions like it before. It took me a while to realise that this isn't a painting. This is a real image from the ALMA telescope, showing the birth of a solar system.

The image shows a star surrounded by a protoplanetary disc, a huge ring of gas and dust around twice the diameter of Neptune's orbit. Invisible at the wavelengths of light that ALMA sees, the central star is a young object called HL Tau, which is  just a million years old. That might seem old, but our own Sun, which is otherwise quite similar to HL Tau, is 4.6 billion years old. HL Tau is a star at the very beginning of its life.

This makes the disc partly expected, but partly mysterious. For the past few decades most models of how planets form have been based on discs like these, the leftover debris from the cloud that collapsed to form the star.  HL Tau is making planets.

Although the entire process is till not fully understood, the theory suggests that slight irregularities in the disc can cause some areas to become more dense. This makes them clump together, growing from dust into small rocks. As they get larger their gravity gets stronger, pulling in more and more material until they begin to look like small planets or asteroids. These planetesimals begin to collide, combining to eventually form planets.  

The ALMA image is a resounding confirmation of this theory, showing this process in action. The disc has huge gaps in it, gaps which are carved out by newly-forming planets. This is the mysterious part, as the presence of these very well defined gaps, at such a young star, show that the planets must be growing much quicker than many simulations suggest.

Not all of the gaps will have planets in them. Some of them will be formed by resonances. This means that, for example, an area of the disc could be going round the star a certain, precise  number of times in the time it takes a further out planet to go round once.

For example, a dust particle in the disc could be going round the star four times for every time planet, which is further away form the star, goes round once. The planet and the dust will then be lined up at exactly the same place each time the planet goes around the star. The gravity of the planet will give the dust an identical tug or kick each time, moving it out of it's orbit.

As this will happen to all of the dust in the same resonant orbit, eventually a gap is cleared. We see the same behaviour in this Solar System- the many rings of Saturn are shaped and sculpted by moons in resonant orbits. Which of the rings in HL Tau are formed by planets, and which are cleared out orbital resonances, will take more observations to find. The full research paper on this observation is yet to be published, so maybe we'll find out then.

Hubble Space Telescope image of the clouds of star-forming gas and dust around HL Tau. Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/NASA/ESA
HL Tau is in the constellation Taurus, currently visible in the late evening in the Eastern sky, near the Moon. But you wont spot the disc, it's far too small.

This leads to the second incredible part of this image: The resolution. The image was taken by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a huge array of 43 (and counting) telescopes designed observing in the submilliter wavelength range, between infrared and radio waves. The telescopes are spread out by up to fifteen kilometers, allowing them to take extremely sharp images.

ALMA can distinguish between objects separated on the sky by just 35 milliarcseconds. For comparison, your eye has a resolution of around one arcminute- nearly two thousand times worse. Resolution like ALMA would allow you to see both sides of a penny placed over one hundred kilometers away.

It's this high resolution that has allowed ALMA to see the protoplanetary disc in such exquisite detail, picking out the tracks formed by the new, growing planets. And this is in many ways just a proof of concept, a test of ALMA's capabilities. Hopefully we'll be seeing many more amazing things with this telescope in the future.

New blogs will be posted, as ever, on Twitter.

COMING SOON: Next Wednesday (12th) The Rosetta spacecraft will deploy the Philae lander to make the first attempt to land on a comet. I'll be tweeting and blogging along, and I highly recommend keeping track of, in my opinion, the most exciting space event of the year.