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2014 Science News: Space Reports

Philae lander touches down on comet, plus laser-guided messaging: the future of communication?


Comet says "Cheese!" (photo ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, via NASA)

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Talk about patience. Back in the dial-up days of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, we good-naturedly sat through the sounds and space of slow modem connections. Ten years later, half of the American adult population were online in 2000, but only 3% had discovered the magic of broadband, according to the Pew Research Center. Today, broadband connectivity is almost omnipresent, with only 3% of the online community still dialing-up. Some things are worth waiting for. One cosmic example: TEN YEARS after sending the spacecraft into space, the Rosetta spacecraft deployed its cargo: a 220 lb lander named Philae toward comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The international scientific community watched (with a 28-minute delay, as that is how long it takes the signal to travel from the lander to Earth, via Rosetta) as Philae made contact, bounced, and bounced again, before finally coming to rest, a bit askew, about ½ mile from the planned touch-down site on November 12, 2014.

Historic Moment

After 64 hours of work, the lander’s solar-powered batteries ran out of juice. But after a bumpy start, Philae’s mission had been accomplished; a full set of data was successfully (albeit slowly) transmitted to Earth, where it is being disseminated by an international team of scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA), its member states, and NASA. The ESA touts Rosetta’s significance : “It is the first mission in history to rendezvous with a comet, escort it as it orbits the Sun, and deploy a lander to its surface.“ The lander Philae was named after an island in the Nile River where an obelisk was recovered and provided the key to the mystery of the Rosetta stone, which in turn led to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Scientists hope that the name will prove prophetic and that the data collected by “the little guy“ will answer some big questions:

  • How did our Solar System form and evolve?
  • How do comets work?
  • What role did comets play in the evolution of the planets, of water on the Earth, and perhaps even of life on our home world?
For lay people, the pictures sent back to us from Philae and Rosetta look like stills from Star Wars, almost comical in their other-worldliness. And it feels surreal to follow Philae’s adventures via Twitter (right now he is “sleeping“ @philae2014), or listen to a recording of the moment of touch down.

Passing the Time

With solar panels now in shadow, Philae rests, hibernating as the comet continues its path toward the sun. Rosetta, too, is in a holding pattern-a “comet escort phase“-- assuming a 30 km orbit around the comet. As the comet nears perihelion, or the point that is nearest to the sun (186 million km) on August 13, 2015, scientists will have maneuvered Rosetta into a series of “unbound orbits“ and “daring flybys“ (within 8 km) of the comet’s heart, and will be ready for a closer orbit, all the better to patiently wait. For the sun’s rays to wake the lander, for new images and data to transmit, and for new answers to age-old questions to be revealed.

Technological Advances at the Speed of Light

Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but, Philae’s successor might be able to communicate more quickly and efficiently if NASA has anything to do with it. In June, NASA reported on the success of an experimental laser device called OPALS, or Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science. The laser device was delivered to the International Space Station last spring aboard a private Dragon SpaceX craft, and on June 5, 2014, sent an HD video message from space. Received at the Table Mountain Observatory in California, the “Hello World!“ message travelled on a beam of light rather than the traditional radio waves. Instead of 10 minutes, the message took only 3.5 seconds to reach the waiting scientists. Promising increased transmission rates from 10 to 1,000 times faster than current standards achieved, laser-guided messaging might just revolutionize space communication the way broadband transformed communication here on Earth.

by Catherine McNiff
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