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11/13/2014
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8 Lessons From Rosetta Comet Mission

What does the European Space Agency's amazing Philae probe landing tell us about where we are as a spacefaring civilization, where we're going, and how to get there?
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First image from the surface of the comet.
(Source: ESA)
First image from the surface of the comet.
(Source: ESA)

Picking into the details of the European Space Agency's amazing Philae probe landing on a comet reveals how far we've come, how far we have to go, and how to boldly go where no one has gone before you. While we're all still in the glow, let's take a moment to review those lessons.

The landing of the ESA probe Philae on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was a triumph. After a journey of 6.4 billion kilometers and 10 years in space, the mothership Rosetta worked its way into orbit around the comet (another first), at the astonishing distance from Earth of 300 million kilometers -- further away from Earth than Mars ever gets. Rosetta then released Philae, which fell to the surface, a distance of about seven miles. In the 1/10,000th gravity of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, Philae's speed was at about one meter per second (the equivalent of falling less than four feet on Earth), so that long drop took seven hours.

Apparently the thruster intended to hold it to the surface and the screws and harpoons intended to lock it down did not work properly. The best interpretation of the data says Philae bounced back up for almost two hours, hit and bounced again for another seven minutes, and finally came to rest sitting more or less upright on the surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko -- a good thing, because if it had landed on its back, it had no way to right itself. And with that, humanity's most popular little robot had touched down on a chunk of ice and dirt moving at 41,000 miles per hour (more than twice the speed of a low-altitude satellite).

Even if Philae had ended up ignominiously upon its back like a hapless turtle, we'd have gained vast knowledge just from its flight down to the surface. As it is, we will know much more as the data slowly trickles to Earth through Rosetta's narrow bandwidth (the mothership is a crucial relay in this system) and the light-speed limits of transmission.

Of course some of the more naive commentary, jaded by media images of spaceships the size of aircraft carriers effortlessly spanning galaxies, missed how remarkable this accomplishment was. But for the most part, the public seemed to follow that this was extraordinarily difficult and challenging, and that this stretched the human race's current space exploration capacity close to its limit.

While we're still celebrating "The Little Probe That Did" (Fox News's nickname seems to have gone viral in the English-language media), let's take a look back and forth, see how ESA did it, and think about what the implications are for the next few years in deep-space exploration.

It's the right time for it: In the long history of the technology of exploration, from the first burned-log canoe to Philae, when explorations reached farther by challenging the technological limit they revealed not just the new territories they were exploring, but also what we would need to become better at if we were to fully explore the new realm. By the time the Polynesians reached Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island, their canoes and navigation systems were far beyond what they had started with back on the Asian coast. Hwang Ho and Magellan demonstrated that sailing ships would need to be bigger, faster, and more precisely navigated. Nansen and Byrd showed that airplanes would need to be bigger, longer-ranged, and higher-flying to reach into polar regions.

So before passion cools, while we're still proudly thinking "what's next," let's see what lessons we can take from the inspiring career of a metal box, physically the size of a washing machine, and historically as big as it gets.

How did ESA succeed? Where and how did they almost fail? What did they do that was good, and what did they have to do that wasn't? And how does that apply to anyone else entering the unknown with new technology?

John Barnes has 31 commercially published and 2 self-published novels,  along with hundreds of magazine articles, short stories, blog posts, and encyclopedia articles.  Most of his life he has written professionally; his day jobs have included teaching at every ... View Full Bio

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mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
12/1/2014 | 7:03:00 PM
Re: Voyagers 1 and 2
I appreciate the time and effort to answer my question. Thank you.
John Barnes
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John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
11/30/2014 | 9:11:48 PM
Re: Voyagers 1 and 2
Hi, Mak63 -- well, whether or not anyone else had trouble, I clearly caused trouble to one reader. I shall plead only that sometimes the very tight word limits and the very large amount of information to be covered cause me to write sentences that are so packed that they implode.

The full sentence that comes from is "As it is, we will know much more as the data slowly trickles to Earth through Rosetta's narrow bandwidth As it is, we will know much more as the data slowly trickles to Earth through Rosetta's narrow bandwidth (the mothership is a crucial relay in this system) and the light-speed limits of transmission.and the light-speed limits of transmission."

Discarding the parentheses for the moment, we have the probably much clearer:

"As it is, we will know much more as the data slowly trickles to Earth through Rosetta's narrow bandwidth  and the light-speed limits of transmission."

That is, there are two things causing the data reaching Earth to arrive in a trickle: 1. Rosetta has narrow bandwidth relative to the amount of data to be sent, and 2. ESA was using a confirmed handshake transmission prootcol over a distance (at that time) of 26 light-minutes (so it took 52 minutes to complete each handshake).

The passage in parentheses:

(the mothership is a crucial relay in this system)

was inserted to head off the question, "why should Rosetta's (the mothership's) bandwidth have any effect on how fast we can get information from Philae?" the answer being that Philae did not have the radio power or antenna to send directly to Earth; it transmitted only to Rosetta, which of course had large amounts of data of its own to send, so that information from both probes had to share the same narrow bandwidth and slow handshaking protocol.

 
mak63
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mak63,
User Rank: Ninja
11/30/2014 | 6:16:33 PM
Voyagers 1 and 2
I'm watching a movie that mentions the Voyager spacecraft. I believe many of us are unaware that these space missions were launched in the late '70s. Unreal, isn't it? They're still going strong. Voyager 1 is already in interstellar space. What a feat, indeed!

"(the mothership is a crucial relay in this system) and the light-speed limits of transmission"

Does anyone else have trouble understanding this?
nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
11/17/2014 | 4:52:00 AM
Re: Perilous time for comet lander

@john very true. I am sure that we will definitely be discussing the futher missions and what will be there outcome. We are fortunate enough that there is no human livess involved as you have mentioned but I need to have more efforts being made in this regard as in case of Virgin Galactic disaster. I am we will be seeing that milestone mission to be accomplished soon as well.

John Barnes
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John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
11/16/2014 | 2:26:23 AM
Re: Perilous time for comet lander
Nomil, the beauty of it is, we'd be here -- but not discussing this (we'd be discussing how to try again, but we'd be discussing).  When the cost is machines, we can pay it gladly.  When the cost is people -- as it looked like it would have to be even twenty years ago -- then we might, sadly, decide to turn our backs on the universe.
nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
11/15/2014 | 7:38:36 AM
Re: Perilous time for comet lander

@Zaious I agree with you here. At least the correct landing and limited transmission has actually opened lot to be debated and now based on these assumptions / evidences, more accurate missions will definitely be planned and executed.

nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
11/15/2014 | 7:35:51 AM
Re: Perilous time for comet lander

@John true. But there might be problem with the rotation of the comet and the surface where this has landed. The surface might be facing otherside against the liking of the scientist. But this is what it is. Scientist need to work with the current situation and try to gather as much knowledge as they can before its batteries are drained out anf this 10 years mission sleeps nicely for ever. I think we are fortunate enough that it has transmitted what it has. Consider if it had landed from where it could not be transmitting anything. We might not be here discussing all this.    :)

nomii
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nomii,
User Rank: Ninja
11/15/2014 | 7:30:53 AM
Re: Perilous time for comet lander

@David I agree with you here. I am of the opinion that the tech was not that advanced enough once this mission was planned. I believe that with every passing day we are improving in all regimes and if this mission was planned in present time then scientisits might have been worried about more tech aspects rather than what they are facing today. I believe that this giant leap will definitely bring manking closer to understand the creation of God and try to probe deep to aquire max knowledge.

John Barnes
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John Barnes,
User Rank: Moderator
11/15/2014 | 3:08:17 AM
Re: Perilous time for comet lander
Very true. I suggest for inspirational reading, Theodore Sturgeon, "The Man Who Lost the Sea," and Robert Heinlein, "Requiem" (audio version) -- and notice that as the robot revolution in long distance exploration moves forward, there will be fewer stories like those, and more like what has happened here: not everything we could have asked for, but pretty good, and with nothing to mourn.
zaious
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zaious,
User Rank: Ninja
11/15/2014 | 2:37:47 AM
Re: Perilous time for comet lander
I admit it might have  very short time to transmit and work, but at least I am happy that it did have some time. What if the battery was dead by the time it reaches the comet? It wold be an expensive failure.

And, failures/ partial successes are going to open the avenue for future journeys. Human has the audacity to ask for more.
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