Rosetta Mission: Debugging A Comet Landing - InformationWeek

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11/12/2014
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Rosetta Mission: Debugging A Comet Landing

European Space Agency made history with a robotic comet landing. Now can it debug a critical glitch before the lander floats away?

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Following the historic first successful touchdown on a comet by the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission, the technical team celebrated -- and then immediately went into remote debugging mode.

The Philae lander touched down at just after 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time on a ball of rock and ice about 4 kilometers in diameter, following a journey of more than 6.4 billion kilometers.

"We are the first to have done that, and that will stay forever," ESA director General Jean-Jacques Dordain said in a press conference. "[Success like this does] not come from the sky, it comes from hard work and expertise. The only way to reconcile risk and success is the expertise."

[NASA faces the "herculean task" of getting its data into machine-readable format. Read NASA Explores New World Of Open Data.]

However, given the very low gravity of the comet, the ESA was relying on a system of harpoons and screws to grab hold of the surface and keep the lander from floating loose. In the midst of the congratulatory press conference, a technician reported that a glitch the team at first hoped might simply be a sensor error was in fact an indication that the harpoons had failed to fire. (At first, ESA reported that everything had gone perfectly.)

Photo from the approach to the comet (Source: European Space Agency)
Photo from the approach to the comet
(Source: European Space Agency)

"The big concern at the moment," Dordain reported, was whether the craft was "standing stably on the service and would remain there." The ESA operations team was evaluating its options, including a second attempt to fire the harpoons. Presumably, they're thinking twice about whether they doing so might backfire, dislodging the craft from its current hold on the surface. On the plus side, other instrument readings indicated that it had been a "very soft landing," according to the tech.

The comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, is a relatively small object, about 4 kilometers in diameter, moving at a speed as great as 135,000 kilometers per hour, according to the ESA. The mission is named, of course, after the Rosetta Stone that unlocked ancient mysteries. Philae is named after Philae Island in the Nile, where an obelisk was found and used, along with the Rosetta Stone, to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, according to Wikipedia.

Scientific goals of the mission include an examination of the materials on the comet's surface and remnants from the origins of the solar system that may be captured there. In addition, the mission is an opportunity for close-up observations of how the surface of a comet changes as it approaches the sun.

Part of the challenge of diagnosing and solving technical problems with the lander is bandwidth -- transmissions coming back from Philae and relayed by the Rosetta spacecraft come back at a rate of about 22 kilobits per second, and the transmission of commands to the craft is slightly slower. That is why ESA wasn't immediately posting high-resolution photos from the surface, although many images from the near approach to the surface were available.

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David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and ... View Full Bio

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stacy1cox
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stacy1cox,
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1/2/2018 | 2:09:08 AM
Pending Review
This comment is waiting for review by our moderators.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
11/14/2014 | 2:57:34 PM
Re: Phew
Situation looking more dire, batteries draining fast, not sure it will call in again at the next launch window. There's a possibility even if it goes dead now it could revive when the comet gets closer to the Sun and light on the solar panels intensifies.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
11/13/2014 | 10:42:36 AM
Re: Phew
So far the lander seems to have bounced but managed to flip itself upright. Give those robotics engineers a raise!
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
11/13/2014 | 10:41:06 AM
John Barnes Comet Landing Slideshow Coming Soon
Science and science fiction writer John Barnes has done a nice slideshow on this that we'll be posting very soon. Just sent it to the copy editors.
Alison_Diana
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Alison_Diana,
User Rank: Author
11/13/2014 | 10:29:06 AM
10 year old tech
From what I've read, the kernels of this brave concept began 20 years ago and liftoff began a decade ago, meaning it uses 10-year-old technology. Granted, the European agency used leading edge tech at the time, but the distance and time involved mean they had to use and equip it with technology no longer used at any space agency today, I'd bet. That, to me, makes this even more amazing. Hats off all round!
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
11/13/2014 | 10:02:29 AM
Phew
I think we can all breath a sigh of relief, but it is a litttle worrying that Philae may be tilted to an angle or possibly be upside down, as it would make it almost impossible to run many of the planned experiments. 

For anyone that wants to have a little bit of a better idea about how amazingly complicated this accomplishment is though, I suggest a game of Kerbal Space Program. It puts a lot in perspective and gives you a lot more respect for everyone involved. 
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
11/13/2014 | 7:28:35 AM
Lander okay, plus a couple of clarifications
Philae is alive and well and has not floated away after all, not so far.

From reading an operational update posted this morning, I should clarify that the lander has 2 communications windows per day from the surface of the rotating comet when everything is aligned right for it to relay signals through the Rosetta spacecraft. The next window will open at 19:27 UTC (12:30 Eastern Time in the US) and last a little over 4 hours.

Also, the bandwidth estimates I got from an ESA website about deep space communications appear to be a little pessimistic. Here is what they're actually seeing:

"Rosetta is presently sending signals to the ground stations at about 28 Kbps; Ignacio says that the spacecraft's own telemetry downlink uses about 1 or 2 Kbps of this, so the rest is being used to download science data from Rosetta and lander science and telemetry from the surface."

Still, you can imagine what crazy compression is required to get back high-res photos and high-fidelity science data.
Harper099
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Harper099,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/13/2014 | 5:57:00 AM
glad to see
I just didn't know. I am glad to see that people are actually writing about this issue in such a smart way,

 
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
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11/12/2014 | 2:35:18 PM
Update from the press conference: did the asteroid lander bounce?
From the press conference that wrapped up a few minutes ago:

Philae lander manager Stephan Ulamec  cautioned that it's "very complicated to understand what has happened during this landing after this landing." Although Philae reported back both housekeeping and science data, it's scarce enough that the team has to make some inferences.

Based on fluctuations in the radio link and in solar power generation, one speculation is that the craft may have lifted off again after landing, done a somersault, and settled back to the surface. "Maybe today, we didn't just land once, we even landed twice," Ulamec said.

The lander is out of radio contact at the moment, but that's not surprising because its landing site has now rotated to face away from the Sun, he said. Assuming the probe reconnects in the morning, the science team should learn more then, he said.
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