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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.)

"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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