Will they pull it off? Watch live as Rosetta sends a lander to a comet – Los Angeles Times

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission is about to attempt to land a spacecraft on a comet, and you can watch it live right here.

If everything goes according to plan, three mechanical screws on the Rosetta orbiter will start to turn about 1 a.m. Pacific time Wednesday. When that happens, the lander will detatch from Rosetta’s side and begin a 14-mile free-fall to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

But that free-fall will be slow going. The gravity of the mountain-sized comet is just 1/60,000 the amount of gravity on Earth. Scientists say it will take the lander between seven and 10 hours to make it to the comet’s surface.

When Philae hits the surface it will send out two harpoons to keep it from bouncing off. It will also send a message to the Rosetta orbiter to let it know how and where it landed. Rosetta will relay that information to Earth, but it will take 28 minutes to arrive. After all, it has to cross 300 million miles of space.

The European Space Agency doesn’t expect to know whether Philae landed safely until about 8 a.m. Pacific time.

If the landing is successful, the agency will make space exploration history. Humanity has slammed spacecraft into comets before, but it has never gently landed on one.

However, scientists say there is a very real chance that the Philae deployment will fail. To function properly, the lander needs to land upright. Unfortunately, the surface of comet 67P is strewn with boulders, and if it lands on one of those it could topple.

If the Philae landing is not successful there will be disappointment and embarrassment. However, it will not signal the end of the mission.

The Rosetta orbiter spent 10 years chasing 67P through space and has been escorting the comet on its journey toward the sun for the last three months. It will continue to fly with it through 2015, collecting data on what the comet looks like, what it’s made of and how much water it’s spewing into space. 

Scientists are hoping the Rosetta mission will provide answers to host a scientific questions like what comets are made of, if they are responsible for bringing water to the early Earth, what their interiors are like, and why their surfaces are so inky black. 

Researchers believe that embedded in the nuclei are materials from the very earliest days of the solar system, and that it is possible the ingredients for life were originally brought to Earth by comets. Imagine the satisfaction of seeing the origins of our planets, and ourselves, up close.

 

 

Science rules! Follow me @DeborahNetburn and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.


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