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Philae Works Hard To The End -- And it May Not Be The End - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Nov-2014 (Updated: 15-Nov-2014 05:38 PM)

UPDATED throughout on November 15, 2014 (originally published November 14)

Despite the odds, the European Space Agency (ESA) was able to restore contact with its Philae lander on the surface of Comet 67P Friday evening (November 14, Eastern Standard Time).  Not only were they able to retrieve data obtained previously, but new commands were sent, new data acquired, and they succeeded in rotating the lander so more sunlight will fall on one of the solar panels.  That gives hope that contact could be restored again as the comet moves closer to the Sun.

Philae (pronounced fee-LAY) spent 10 years travelling to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko aboard its Rosetta mothership.  The two spacecraft separated on November 12 and Philae landed on the surface of the comet, the first time such a feat has been achieved.  But two systems that were intended to ensure that the lander stayed put in the very low gravity environment did not work and Philae bounced twice, landing three times.   Unfortunately, the final landing spot is surrounded by rocks, preventing sunlight from recharging the lander's batteries.

Philae has two batteries and one of them was sufficiently charged to complete the probe's primary scientific goals, but the hope was that it, plus a secondary battery, could be recharged to allow an extended mission lasting months rather than days.   Earlier on Friday, prospects seemed grim that even one more communications session could take place.

Philae landed for the first time at 10:34 am EST on November 12.  It bounced and remained aloft for almost two hours, bounced again and then landed 7 minutes later.  From then until approximately 7:30 pm EST Friday, its 10 scientific instruments collected a great amount of data, including drilling into the comet.  Scientists are still analyzing the data collected during the 57 hours it operated.

But with battery levels falling precipitously, at 7:28 pm EST, ESA's operations center tweeted (@esaoperations) that the lander had switched to standby mode due to low power: "All instruments off.  Comm link still active."  A few minutes later "Lander now sending only housekeeping data at very low rate.  All instruments off.  Comm link alive." Soon thereafter: "our lander's asleep.  Good night."  ESA reports that the last contact was at 00:36 GMT November 15 (7:36 pm EST November 14).

Project manager Stephan Ulamec said "we are happy.  We can even watch it falling asleep, which is a little bit sad but it can give us data that we want to have," according to a tweet from The Planetary Society's Emily Lakdawalla (@elakdawalla) who has been reporting from the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Germany throughout the lander's mission.

Scientists are ecstatic at all the data the lander was able to acquire in that short time, and from Rosetta, which continues to orbit the comet and will collect and send back data until it runs out of fuel in 2016.   Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor said yesterday that some results will be presented at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) next month.

Cameras on Rosetta continue to try to locate Philae.   ESA does not know where it is.  The first touchdown was exactly where it was supposed to land, but where the bounces took it is unknown.  (ESA released a set of images from Rosetta's NavCam taken of the original landing spot over a period of 3 minutes and 34 seconds as Philae approached the surface and then after it bounced, apparently leaving a dark spot of disturbed dust behind.)

Rosetta serves as a relay between Philae and Earth, so communications are only possible when Rosetta is in the correct position to serve that function.  A communications opportunity opened at 10:00 UTC (5:00 am EST) on November 15, but Philae did not respond.   Rosetta is now being moved into a different orbit around the comet to continue its own science program, but will continue listening -- and looking -- for Philae.

Comet 67P is on its way in towards the Sun and Rosetta will be able to study it as it becomes active with its ices melting from the Sun's heat creating the familiar comet's tail.  

Scientists have some hope that they may hear again from Philae if the solar panel becomes more illuminated as the comet travels inward.  During the session last night, commands were sent such that Philae lifted its body 4 centimeters and turned 35 degrees in the hope its solar panels would get more sunlight to recharge the batteries.   Between now and whenever that happens, Philae will hibernate. 

Whatever happens in the future, ESA has achieved several firsts that will go into the space exploration record books, including the first spacecraft to orbit a comet, the first spacecraft to land on a comet, and the first spacecraft to drill into the surface of a comet.

Is Philae's Time Coming to an End? - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Nov-2014 (Updated: 14-Nov-2014 05:36 PM)

UPDATE, November 14, 5:33 pm EST: The European Space Operations Center (ESOC) just tweeted (@esaoperations) that it has reacquired Philae.  The first contact was brief, but the signal was then reacquired and communications now are "stable" and "telemetry and science data are flowing."  We'll post another update later this evening.

The European Space Agency's (ESA's) Philae lander is on the surface of Comet 67P and its science instruments are working, but its ability to function and communicate with Earth could be quickly coming to an end -- perhaps today.   Philae landed in a place surrounded by rocks that are blocking sunlight from reaching its solar panels to recharge the batteries.  ESA scientists hope they can reestablish communications at least one more time, but will not know until about 6:00 pm Eastern Standard Time (23:00 GMT, midnight CET) today.

Philae (pronounced fee-LAY) has been traveling in space for 10 years aboard its mothership Rosetta.  They reached Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which is currently about 510 million kilometers (315 million miles) from Earth, in August.  The two separated on Wednesday (November 12) and Philae landed on the comet while Rosetta remains in orbit. 

Both spacecraft are equipped with many scientific instruments and Rosetta also serves as a communications relay between Philae and Earth.   Whenever Rosetta moves below the horizon at the comet, communications between Philae and its Earth-based operators cease.  Thus there are only certain windows of opportunity when Earth and Philae can talk to each other and instructions uploaded or data downloaded.

The next communications pass will be at about 9:00 pm UTC tonight, Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec said during a Google Hangout update this morning.  Times are approximate and he added that the passes have been occurring about one hour later than expected.  Adding in the 28 minutes 20 seconds needed for a signal to travel from the comet to Earth, it will be "about midnight" when they know if contact was restored.  (At that point, he apparently was referring to midnight local time in Germany, which is Central European Time.  UTC is one hour earlier; EST is 6 hours earlier, making it about 6:00 pm EST.)

Comets have almost no gravity so Philae was equipped with harpoons that were supposed to fire into the comet's surface to hold it in place.  Philae also has a small engine that was supposed to provide a downward force as it reached the surface.  Finally, the three landing legs had ice screws to help hold it in place.   Operators knew the engine was not working even before Philae separated from Rosetta, but decided to proceed anyway confident of the other systems.  Unfortunately, the harpoons did not fire when Philae first touched down on the comet at 10:34 am EST on November 12.   It bounced about a kilometer (about half a mile) high and floated above the comet for almost two hours before landing for a second time, bouncing again, and then landing for a third and final time about seven minutes later.

Where it landed still is not known.  Cameras aboard Rosetta are searching for it, but so far without success.  Philae is quite small -- about one meter (three feet) on each side --  and it landed somewhere amidst rocks.  Not only do the rocks complicate finding it from orbit, but they are preventing sunlight from recharging Philae's batteries. 

Valentina Lommatsch from the German space agency's (DLR's) lander control center clarified that all three of Philae's legs are touching the surface despite earlier reports that one was sticking up in the air. The problem is that we are "really unlucky" to be "in a corner surrounded by rocks."

Philae's primary battery had 64 hours of life when it landed, enough to complete its primary scientific mission.  The hope was for an extended mission of many months, however, allowing many more investigations using Philae's 10 scientific instruments, but those chances are looking slim.

Ulamec said that even regaining contact with the spacecraft tonight "is not secure, maybe the battery will be empty before we get contact again."   Of the three solar panels on Philae, one is getting a low level of illumination for about 1 hour 20 minutes each "day" and the others about 20 minutes each, versus the 6-7 hours planned. 

Last night when they uploaded commands to Philae, they calculated that it had about 100 watt-hours left and 80 were needed to execute those instructions (to activate scientific experiments), Lommatsch explained.  Unfortunately one of the last commands, which would have put it into low power mode to extend the battery life, did not reach the lander and "it will be really, really close" as to whether communications can be restored, she cautioned.  Later she said the lander needs 5.1 watts to boot.  Before a battery can be recharged, its temperature must be raised to 0 degrees Celsius and that requires 50-60 watt hours per day.  Then there still must be enough daylight left to actually recharge it.  "Looks a bit bad, but we can always hope," Lommatsch said.

ESA experts are assessing what they might be able to do with Philae if communications are restored to increase the chances of recharging, perhaps by moving the lander -- either rotating it using its flywheel, or trying to get it to essentially hop out of its current location to a better spot.  If nothing else, there is a chance -- although it sounded rather small -- that communications could be reestablished as the comet moves closer to the Sun and illumination increases. 

Ulamec was asked why ESA did not use a nuclear power source for the lander.  Some spacecraft, like NASA's Mars Curiosity rover, use Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTGs) to power the spacecraft and its instruments.  RTGs use heat produced by the decay of plutonium-238.  Ulamec replied that launching nuclear power sources carries safety and political implications and, in any case, Europe does not have that technology.

Despite everything, the Philae scientists, engineers and operators appear delighted with what they have been able to accomplish already, even if there is no more.  Rosetta project scientist Matt Taylor said that a great deal of science data has been obtained from Philae and Rosetta and will be presented at the upcoming fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU 2014) next month in San Francisco, CA.

Flight director Andrea Accomazzo urged everyone to focus on what has been done, not what could have been done.  "This is already fantastic," he enthused, while adding that he really wants to know exactly where Philae is and to hear from it tonight.

ULA's Tory Bruno Vows To Transform Company

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 14-Nov-2014 (Updated: 14-Nov-2014 03:28 PM)

Alluding to what he described as a moment of exciting change for the commercial launch industry, the newly appointed head of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) discussed how his company, the primary U.S. national security launch provider, will adapt to remain on top.

At an event Thursday hosted by the Atlantic Council, Salvatore “Tory” T. Bruno, ULA president and CEO, described his sense of “irrational optimism” at the future of the commercial launch industry. Widespread accessibility will be the key feature of a new environment, he explained, one where government and new commercial customers will need access to space to accomplish “missions we couldn’t conceive of in the past.”

ULA, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture established in 2006 with a record of 89 successful launches, is banking on experience to remain ahead in an industry facing new competition and possible constraints from foreign policy pressures.  Last April, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) filed a complaint against the U.S. Air Force for awarding an $11 billion block buy contract to ULA for five years’ worth of launches on its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). ULA has stated this block buy saved the government $4 billion, cutting launch prices in half. SpaceX has argued it can offer the same service for much less and is vying to compete for national space security launch contracts.

Although not referring to SpaceX directly, Bruno cited ULA’s “perfect record of mission success,” and “great heritage” as the benefit of doing business with the company.  But the country is demanding new things, he said, and “I am going to transform this company.” Bruno vowed to “cash in” the company’s decades of experience, reorganize to make it more agile, and establish new business models to adapt to the new environment. These changes will lead to improvements in how ULA interacts with its customers, both governmental and commercial, shorter launch cycles, and launch costs cut in half again.

Among the changes already under way, in September ULA announced a partnership with Blue Origin for the development of an alternative to the Russian-built RD-180 engine which ULA uses on its Atlas V vehicle.  In light of deteriorating diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia, for the past several months policymakers and industry leaders have been debating alternatives to reduce U.S. reliance on Russia for putting critical national security assets in orbit.

ULA intends to phase out the RD-180 over time and transition to an “American solution” to launching satellites using Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine.  Bruno said that transition is coming “very soon,” but ULA will continue buying RD-180s under its existing contract with RD-AMROSS and is accelerating their delivery.  ULA wants to have eight rather than five delivered next year, he acknowledged.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), expected to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in the next Congress, included language in the Senate version of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (S. 2410, sec. 1623) prohibiting DOD from contracting for space launch services from companies using Russian suppliers.  Asked about his reaction to the language, Bruno replied that, as originally drafted, the language would have been “very harmful” to ULA in ways “the drafters did not intend” and is being revised as part of negotiations over the final version of the bill.

When asked by a reporter for Russia’s news agency, Itar-TASS, why the RD-180s were being phased out and deliveries accelerated, Bruno made no reference to the tense geopolitical circumstances, however.   Instead, he framed it strictly as a business decision.  Praising the RD-180 as a “great” engine that is very reliable with “terrific performance,” he nonetheless said it was time to move past the technologies of the 1970s and 1980s and build a lighter engine with improved thrust.  As for moving up the delivery timetable, he said that was in response to anticipated market demand for more Atlas V launches.

The Atlantic Council has posted the webcast of the event on its website.

ESA: Philae Landed THREE Times, not Two, But is OK

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Nov-2014 (Updated: 13-Nov-2014 09:59 AM)

The European Space Agency's (ESA's) Philae lander bounced twice -- landing three times -- when it reached the surface of Comet 67P yesterday, but is working fine and returning images and other scientific data.   Philae separated from its Rosetta mother spacecraft yesterday and reached the comet's surface at 10:34 am EST (November 12), the first spacecraft to land on a comet.

Philae (pronounced fee-LAY) communicates with Earth through Rosetta, which is orbiting Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Radio communications with Philae initially were intermittent yesterday and then ended as Rosetta moved below the horizon.   Scientists waited many hours until Rosetta was once again in position to serve as a relay.  Right on schedule, communications were reestablished at 06:01 UTC (01:01 am EST) today.  That communications session lasted until 09:58 UTC.

ESA released photographs of the surface of the comet from the ÇIVA (pronounced SHE-va) instrument on Philae.  ÇIVA is a set of six identical micro-cameras that can take panoramic pictures of the surface.  One of the six images (below) shows Philae's foot on the surface of the comet.

Comet 67P imaged by Philae lander (lander's foot clearly visible).
Released by ESA November 13, 2014  Credits: ESA/Rosetta/Phiae/ÇIVA 

Comets have almost no gravity, so Philae was equipped with harpoons that were supposed to fire down into the surface of the comet to hold the lander in place.  The harpoons did not fire, however, so Philae bounced.  Yesterday, Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec said "maybe today we didn't just land once, we even landed twice."

Now they know there were two bounces, with three landings.  

As Ulamec explained today, the first contact with the surface was at 15:34 UTC (10:34 am EST) precisely where Philae was intended to land.  However, it bounced off the surface and remained aloft for almost two hours.  Ulamec said they think it bounced about 1 kilometer high and moved 1 kilometer in distance, touching down a second time at 17:25 UTC (12:25 EST).  It then bounced again and was aloft for 7 minutes, landing for the third time at 17:32 UTC (12:32 EST).   They do not know exactly where the lander is now.    ESA is using the OSIRIS camera on Rosetta to search the surface for Philae.   The cameras on Philae shows that it is very close to a cliff, which may complicate finding it.  

The lander is in good shape.  The only wrinkle concerns how long it can function.   Philae has primary and secondary batteries.  It is operating off of the primary battery now, but it will soon run out of power unless it and the secondary battery can be recharged from its solar cells.    Because it landed near a cliff, however, the solar cells are receiving much less sunlight than expected -- only 1.5 hours of 6-7 hours -- during this first period of time.   The Philae team is looking at options, such as trying to reposition it so the solar cells get more sunlight, but is moving cautiously lest the lander's position be further disturbed.  

Philae  is designed to be able to survive long periods in hibernation and the lighting conditions will change as the comet moves through the solar system.  Ulamec said it is possible that even if the lander loses power, it could reawaken months from now if more sunlight is available, but he was not willing to even guess at the possibility that would happen.  Rosetta will continue to orbit the comet until August-September 2016 when it will run out of fuel.


SS2 Pilot Siebold Unaware Critical Lever Moved Prematurely

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2014 (Updated: 12-Nov-2014 08:57 PM)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued an update on its investigation into the October 31 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) accident that claimed the life of co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injured pilot Peter Siebold.   Siebold's injuries prevented the NTSB from interviewing him until last Friday and the update includes a brief summary of what he told them.

SS2 was a spaceplane developed by Scaled Composites for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic enterprise to take anyone who could afford the $250,000 ticket price on a suborbital trip to space.  The October 31 mission was a test flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port, CA, in preparation for commercial operations that were to begin early in 2015.  The two pilots were Scaled employees.

The spaceplane is carried aloft by a large aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, which drops the spaceplane at about 45,000 feet altitude.  The spaceplane then fires a rocket engine to ascend to at least 100 kilometers, an internationally recognized (but not legally defined) boundary between air and space, and after about six minutes in weightlessness, returns to land on Earth.

The NTSB previously determined based on video from the SS2 cockpit and other data that Alsbury prematurely moved a lever to initiate a "feathering system" designed to slow the spaceplane during its descent.  The lever should have been moved only when the spaceplane reached Mach 1.4, but Alsbury moved it from locked to unlocked at Mach 1.02 during ascent.  A second step, where the pilot would move another lever, ostensibly was required to actually activate the feathering system.  That second step never took place, but the feathering system deployed itself, changing the position of tail booms on the vehicle.  NTSB investigators stress that they have reached no conclusions about the accident and only are stating facts, but there is widespread supposition that with the feathering system activated at the wrong time, aerodynamic forces tore the spaceplane apart. 

The two men fell from a very high altitude (which has not been revealed, but SS2 was released at about 45,000 feet and fired its rocket engine for about 11 seconds, so they were quite high).  They were wearing parachutes, but no pressure suits.   The vehicle did not have ejection seats.  Alsbury was found dead in his seat on the ground.

Siebold survived, which many consider a miracle.  According to today's NTSB update, Siebold told them he was "extracted from the vehicle as the result of the break-up sequence and unbuckled from his seat at some point before the parachute deployed automatically."   He told the NTSB that he was not aware that the feathering system had been unlocked by Alsbury.

The NTSB said it has completed its on-site investigation work at Mojave. The SS2 wreckage has been recovered and is in secure storage.  Analysis of the data will continue at the NTSB's Washington, DC laboratory.   NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart said earlier that the complete investigation could take 12 months.  

House and Senate Return to Work Today To Finish 113th Congress, Prepare for Next Year

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2014 (Updated: 12-Nov-2014 05:22 PM)

The House and Senate return to work today to finish out the 113th Congress and get ready for the 114th, which begins in January.   The congressional landscape will change significantly then, with Republicans taking control of the Senate in addition to the House.  Generally, space activities have bi-partisan support in both chambers.  Where that has broken down in the past is over budgets and that could be a defining issue in the 114th Congress.

But first, over the next several weeks Congress needs to complete work on FY2015 appropriations.  There remains a question as to whether the appropriations will cover the rest of the fiscal year – through September 30, 2015 – or only a few months, but something must be done by December 11 to keep the government open.  On that day, the Continuing Resolution (CR) currently funding the government expires.

The prevailing wisdom is that Congress will pass an omnibus FY2015 appropriations bill combining all 12 regular appropriations bills and fund the government through the rest of FY2015.  Some Tea Party Republicans, however, want a short term bill to carry the government only through the first few weeks of the New Year when Republicans are in control of both chambers.

The House has passed seven of the 12 regular appropriations bills, and although the Senate has not passed any, the Senate Appropriations Committee completed work on eight. The two that fund most space activities are Defense (national security space programs) and Commerce-Justice-Science (NASA and NOAA).  A third, Transportation-HUD, funds activities at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

The House has passed and the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved all three of those bills increasing the likelihood that final action on them can be completed by year’s end if prevailing wisdom holds true.

Congress also has not yet completed action on new authorization bills for NASA or DOD. Like appropriations, the House has passed bills for both, but the Senate has not passed either.   Congress has an unblemished record for more than 50 years of passing annual DOD authorization bills, formally called a National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Pundits are predicting that one will pass this year, too, probably by using the House-passed bill as the basis for a behind-the-scenes compromise and sending it to the Senate floor for a vote, skipping the step of passing a Senate version first.

As for NASA, it is always possible that similar negotiations could also result in a bill clearing Congress this year, but the NASA bill is not considered as crucial as the NDAA. With little time on the legislative calendar, the imminent change in party control, and the departure of key Senate Democratic staffer Ann Zulkosky, getting the NASA bill done could be problematical.

The Senate also is expected to try and approve at least some of President Obama’s nominations, particularly those for judicial positions.  Whether Dava Newman’s nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator can get through in such a short time will depend on many factors, such as whether she has a Senate champion willing to push for it or if any opposition has developed.   Expectations were that it would not be considered until next year and that is probably a good bet.

What will happen in the 114th Congress is anyone’s guess.  There’s a presidential election coming up in 2016 and each party will use the next two years to convince the electorate to choose a President from their side of the aisle (President Obama cannot run for another term, so there will be no incumbent).  Not to mention that all of the House and one-third of the Senate will once again be up for election.  How all of that plays out in congressional politics is to be determined.  There is much talk at the moment of the two parties working together because the electorate is weary of Washington gridlock, but such talk is typical right after an election.   Rarely does it actually lead to compromise.  With some Republicans vowing to repeal the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and fight the President on issues from immigration to the Keystone Pipeline, it is difficult to be optimistic.

All the committee and subcommittee chairmanships will change in the Senate, since the Republicans are taking control.  Even though Republicans retained control in the House, 11 committee chairmanships are up for grabs because of term limits or retirements.  There is a lot of speculation about who will be in charge of what, which is important, but in terms of the fate of government-funded space programs, a more important factor is whether deficit cutting returns as the dominant issue in Congress.

Republicans and Democrats have been fighting for the past six years over how to reduce the deficit.  The Republicans want only funding cuts, while Democrats want a combination of funding cuts and tax increases.   The result of the deadlock over this issue was sequestration – across-the-board funding cuts for federal agencies that are part of the “discretionary spending” portion of the budget that Congress directly allocates (as opposed to mandatory spending for programs like Medicare and Social Security).

Both parties oppose sequestration, but could not reach a compromise on any other solution.   In December 2013, a temporary truce was negotiated by the chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), where sequestration limits were lifted, but only for FY2014 and FY2015.  Consequently, budget fights were not as intense for FY2015 and NASA, for example, would get a significant boost if it gets what is allocated in its House-passed and Senate Appropriations Committee-approved appropriations bill.

That could be a short-term win, though. Unless Congress changes the law, sequestration is back for FY2016 and beyond. Republicans do not like sequestration any more than Democrats, and now that they will control both chambers, they could try to repeal sequestration and replace it with cuts to mandatory spending.  They can only go so far, though, without alienating their own voters or prompting a presidential veto.  Discretionary programs like NASA and NOAA could once again be in the budget bulls eye and while DOD as a whole may fare better, it is far from clear if that would extend to its space programs.

A lot of what happens in the 114th Congress may depend on whether "establishment" Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), can work with their Tea Party colleagues or if there will be intra-party fights.  Also, in the Senate, the Democrats could adopt the tactics McConnell has used so effectively as Minority Leader in preventing action on most legislation.   The Senate will have 53 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats, essentially a 53 - 46 split (one race, Louisiana, is still undetermined). That is basically the inverse of the situation today.  Just as Senate Republicans stymied action under Democratic control, so could Democrats do the same now that they will be in the minority.

Philae's Ulamec: Maybe We Didn't Land Just Once, But Twice

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2014 (Updated: 12-Nov-2014 03:44 PM)

Emphasizing that it is only speculation for now, the program manager for ESA's Philae lander said today that the spacecraft may have bounced and landed not once, but twice on Comet 67P.  Stephan Ulamec and his team are still analyzing the data to determine exactly what happened, but the key message is that Philae did succeed in landing on the comet and returned scientific data and much more is expected.

Philae separated from its Rosetta mother spacecraft early this morning Eastern Standard Time (EST) and landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko just after 10:30 am EST.  Rosetta and Philae arrived in Comet 67P's vicinity in August after a 10-year journey and scientists have been studying the comet's surface in detail to determine the best landing spot to be used today. 

ESA has released many images of the comet taken by Rosetta as it orbits the comet, but scientists are anxious to see the view from the comet's surface taken with Philae's instruments. Today, ESA did not release any photographs of the comet taken by Philae after it landed, but did provide a photo from Philae when it was just 3 kilometers above the surface.   From that photograph, they determined that Philae was right on target to land in the center of the pre-determined landing ellipse. 

Image of Comet 67P from ROLIS camera on Philae lander approximately 3 kilometers above the surface. November 12, 2014. 
Credit:  ESA/Rosetta/Philae/ROLIS/DLR

ESA also released an image of Rosetta taken by Philae after the two spacecraft separated, and a photo of Philae, taken by Rosetta, as it descended to the comet's surface.

Comets have almost no gravity, so Philae is equipped with harpoons to fire into the surface to hold it in place.  Minutes after it landed, Ulamec excitedly announced that Philae was on the comet and its harpoons had fired, but ESA soon tweeted a correction --  the harpoons had NOT fired.  It soon became clear that they were not entirely clear about Philae's status other than that it was, indeed, on the comet's surface.

At a later press briefing, Ulamec explained that not only is it "complicated" to land on a comet, but to understand what happened after landing. He and his team knew Philae had landed and received expected housekeeping and science data from many of the 10 instruments on the probe.  However, there were fluctuations in the radio link -- it would cut out, but come back on immediately -- and the solar generator.  They still do not know exactly what happened, but one possibility is that the lander bounced after its initial landing and then landed a second time. 

"Maybe today we didn't just land once, we even landed twice," Ulamec said excitedly, while emphasizing that it only speculation at this point to explain what they observed.

ESA has temporarily lost contact with Philae entirely now, but that was expected.  Philae communicates with Earth via Rosetta, so the link is lost when Rosetta moves below the horizon.  Paolo Ferri, head of Mission Operations for ESA, said they lost the link earlier than planned, but he said he is not concerned because the topography of the comet is not well known and a hill, for example, simply could be in the way.   Ulamec and Ferri conveyed confidence that communications will be restored tomorrow after Rosetta makes an already planned maneuver.

ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain accentuated the positive -- Philae landed, at the right place, and it has a radio link and electrical power so it can perform its tasks.  Beyond that, he pleaded for everyone to give the scientists time to analyze their data.

The next media briefing is scheduled for 14:00 Central European Time (CET) tomorrow, November 13 (13:00 UTC, 8:00 am EST).



ESA Lands a Spacecraft on a Comet for the First Time - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Nov-2014 (Updated: 12-Nov-2014 11:58 AM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) landed a spacecraft on a comet today, the first time such a feat has been achieved.  The Philae lander was separated from its Rosetta mothership early this morning Eastern Standard Time (EST) and landed just after 10:30 am EST.   Scientists and people around the world waited anxiously for the 28 minutes 20 seconds it takes for a signal to travel the 510 million kilometers from the comet to Earth to learn that the landing was successful.  

Confirmation of the landing was expected at 11:02:20 am EST and shortly after that cheering broke out at the operations center in Europe.  That was followed by several minutes of serious-looking faces as they studied the data coming back, creating some worry.  The word "bounce" was heard.  But soon thereafter, Philae project manager Stephan Ulamec from German's space agency DLR announced the good news that Philae was safe and sound on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  "Philae is talking to us, the harpoons have fired, we are sitting on the surface.  We are on the comet."

Comets have almost no gravity, so Philae was design to attach itself to the surface with harpoons and screws.   Although Ulamec initially said that harpoons had fired, ESA tweeted within an hour that, in fact, they did not. 

ESA Operations ‏@esaoperations 

More analysis of @Philae2014 telemetry indicates harpoons did not fire as 1st thought. Lander in gr8 shape. Team looking at refire options


The first images from Philae of the comet's surface are expected to reach Earth and be released by ESA in about two hours (around 1:00 pm EST).  

Already, ESA provided two intriguing images, however.   The first is a photograph of the Rosetta mothership taken by Philae 50 seconds after the two separated.   The second is a photograph of Philae taken by Rosetta as Philae descended to the comet's surface. 


The body and one solar panel of ESA's Rosetta spacecraft can be seen in the upper part of this photo, taken
by the Philae lander 50 seconds after the two spacecraft separated.  The bright light  is the Sun.  November 12, 2014.
Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Image of ESA's Philae lander as it descends to land on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, taken by the OSIRIS
camera on the Rosetta spacecraft.  Philae's three landing legs are clearly visible.  November 12, 2014

ESA named the landing site on Comet 67P "Agilkia." 

ESA says Rosetta and Philae "aim to unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our solar system -- comets" and hence the names are connected to the deciphering of hieroglyphics. 

  • Rosetta is named after the Rosetta Stone that allowed the deciphering of hieroglyphics and therefore an understanding of Egyptian civilization.
  • Philae is the name of an island in the Nile river where an obelisk was found with the final clues to enable the decryption.
  • Philae was flooded when the Aswan dams were built in the 20th century and a complex of Ancient Egyptian buildings, including the Temple of Isis, were moved to another island, Agilkia,   ESA held a contest to name Philae's landing site on 67P and of 8,000 entries, more than 150 suggested Agilkia and that was the winner.

The comet is named after the two Kiev, Ukraine astronomers who discovered it in 1969, Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, while conducting comet observations at the Alma-Ata Astrophysical Institute in Kazakhstan.

Rosetta is an ESA mission, but NASA provided three of its instruments.

Note:  This article was updated at 11:55 am EST November 12 after ESA announced that the harpoons had not, in fact, fired.

ESA's Philae "Go" for Landing Tomorrow on Comet 67P

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Nov-2014 (Updated: 11-Nov-2014 03:41 PM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) made the first "go" of four planned "go/no-go" decisions this afternoon commanding its Rosetta spacecraft to get ready to separate the Philae lander for its trip down to the surface of Comet 67P.  Landing on the comet is expected tomorrow morning (November 12) Eastern Standard Time (EST).  It takes 28 minutes 20 seconds for a signal to get from Rosetta to Earth during which time scientists and people around the world will be waiting with baited breath for confirmation that the landing was successful.   ESA expects the confirmation signal about 11:02 am EST plus or minus 40 minutes.

Rosetta, with Philae aboard, arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (or 67P for short) in August after a 10 year journey.   It has been orbiting the comet over the past several months getting steadily closer to the surface to shorten the descent for Philae.   If successful, this will be the first time a spacecraft has landed on a comet nucleus.

Comet 67P and Rosetta/Philae are currently about 510 million kilometers from Earth, though the spacecraft took a circuitous route to get there, travelling more than 6.5 billion kilometers to date.

ESA is providing extensive live coverage of the go/no-go decisions and other events leading up to the landing.  A list of the critical moments is posted on its website. 

NASA will cover the landing on NASA TV tomorrow from 9:00-11:30 am EST.  NASA contributed three of the instruments on Rosetta -- ALICE, MIRO and IES -- and part of the electronics for a fourth, ROSINA.

Comet 67P is approximately 4 kilometers in diameter, though it has an irregular shape -- often described as looking like a duck, though that takes some imagination.   ESA narrowed down potential landing sites to one, which it named Agilkia.  

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft at a distance of 1,000 kilometers,
August 1, 2014. Photo credit:  ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team. 
ESA notes that the dark spot is an image artifact.

Philae has 10 instruments that will analyze the composition and structure of the comet's surface and subsurface.  A drill will allow samples to be obtained down to 23 centimeters below the surface.  The samples will be analyzed by a spectrometer to determine the chemical composition.   Other instruments will measure near-surface strength, density, texture, porosity, ice phases and thermal properties.  Gravity on the comet is almost non-existent so Philae will "touch down at no more than a walking pace" and use a harpoon to anchor itself to the comet, according to an ESA fact sheet.

ESA says Rosetta and Philae "aim to unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our solar system -- comets" and hence the names are connected to the deciphering of hieroglyphics. 

  • Rosetta is named after the Rosetta Stone that allowed the deciphering of hieroglyphics and therefore an understanding of Egyptian civilization.
  • Philae is the name of an island in the Nile river where an obelisk was found with the final clues to enable the decryption.
  • Philae was flooded when the Aswan dams were built in the 20th century and a complex of Ancient Egyptian buildings, including the Temple of Isis, were moved to another island, Agilkia,   ESA held a contest to name Philae's landing site on 67P and of 8,000 entries, more than 150 suggested Agilkia and that was the winner.

The comet is named after the two Kiev, Ukraine astronomers who discovered it in 1969, Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, while conducting comet observations at the Alma-Ata Astrophysical Institute in Kazakhstan.

What's Happening in Space Policy November 9-15, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Nov-2014 (Updated: 09-Nov-2014 07:39 AM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of November 9-15, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress returns to work on Wednesday, November 12.

During the Week

From a policy perspective, certainly the biggest event this week is the return of Congress after a long break leading up to last week's mid-term elections.  As everyone knows, Republicans won control of the Senate and House Republicans added many seats to their side of the aisle.   Some races remain undetermined so there is not yet a final count of how many R's and D's there will be in the 114th Congress that convenes in January, but in the Senate there will be at least 52 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 Independents (both currently caucus with Democrats and one has said he will continue to do so in the next Congress).  The Senate race in Alaska has not been called yet, and there will be a run-off for the Louisiana Senate seat next month.  In the House, there will be at least 244 Republicans and 184 Democrats.  The other races have not been called yet.  As many observers are pointing out, it has been 80 years since the Democrats have had so few seats in the House.  We'll have more on how the changes in Congress could impact space programs in an article later this week.

That's next year, though.  On Wednesday, it is the 113th Congress that reconvenes and it still has work to do.   The one must-pass piece of legislation is the FY2015 appropriations.  The government is currently operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on December 11, so Congress has until then to pass another CR or the 12 regular appropriations bills probably packaged together into a single omnibus bill or series of "mini-buses."  It is possible that some Republicans may try to delay passage of final appropriations bills until next year when they are in control of both chambers and therefore will agree only to a short-term CR to carry the government over into the New Year, but the betting at the moment seems to be that the matter will be settled by the end of this year.  That could change, of course. 

There also are big events in space activities coming up.  Tonight (Sunday) three International Space Station (ISS) crew members return to Earth in their Soyuz TMA-13M spacecraft:  NASA's Reid Wiseman, Europe's Alexander Gerst and Russia's Max Suraev.  NASA TV will cover undocking (7:30 pm EST) and landing in Kazakhstan (10:58 pm EST).  

Then on Wednesday, November 12, ESA's Philae lander will land on Comet 67P/Churymov-Gerasimenko, the first spacecraft to achieve such a feat.  ESA's Rosetta spacecraft, with Philae aboard, arrived at the comet in August after a 10 year journey.  Lots of media events in Europe are scheduled for the days before, of, and after the landing.  Confirmation that Philae successfully landed is expected about 11:00 am EST on Wednesday.  NASA TV will cover that part of the mission from 9:00 - 11:30 am EST.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.

Sunday, November 9

Tuesday, November 11

Wednesday, November 12

Friday, November 14

Saturday, November 15


Events of Interest   

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »


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