Its been another busy time for space news spacefans! This week sees the launch of China’s second space lab, Freddie Mercury gets his own roid, and we found Philae!
Many readers may remember the Philae lander that accompanied ESA Rosetta mission on its journey to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gersimenko. Almost two years ago, the lander detached and went in for a soft landing on the comet’s surface, only to have its anchoring harpoons and thruster all fail. Despite bouncing, Philae achieved the first “soft” landing on a comet’s surface, but was left in an unknown position with poor access to sunlight. Now, just before the end of the Rosetta mission, Rosetta’s hi-res camera has found the lander wedged tightly into a crack on the comet. The picture also clearly illustrates why communication with the lander was so problematic.
“With only a month left of the Rosetta mission, we are so happy to have finally imaged Philae, and to see it in such amazing detail,” says Cecilia Tubiana of the OSIRIS camera team, the first person to see the images when they were downlinked from Rosetta yesterday.
“After months of work, with the focus and the evidence pointing more and more to this lander candidate, I’m very excited and thrilled that we finally have this all-important picture of Philae sitting in Abydos,” says ESA’s Laurence O’Rourke, who has been coordinating the search efforts over the last months at ESA, with the OSIRIS and Lander Science Operations and Navigation Center (SONC, CNES) teams.
Philae was last seen when it first touched down at Agilkia, bounced and then flew for another two hours before ending up at a location later named Abydos, on the comet’s smaller lobe.
After three days, Philae’s primary battery was exhausted and the lander went into hibernation, only to wake up again and communicate briefly with Rosetta in June and July 2015 as the comet came closer to the Sun and more power was available.
“This remarkable discovery comes at the end of a long, painstaking search,” says Patrick Martin, ESA’s Rosetta Mission Manager. “We were beginning to think that Philae would remain lost forever. It is incredible we have captured this at the final hour.”
“This wonderful news means that we now have the missing ‘ground-truth’ information needed to put Philae’s three days of science into proper context, now that we know where that ground actually is!” says Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist.
“Now that the lander search is finished we feel ready for Rosetta’s landing, and look forward to capturing even closer images of Rosetta’s touchdown site,” adds Holger Sierks, principal investigator of the OSIRIS camera.
Philae is named for the Philae obelisk. The obelisk’s bilingual inscription was used along with the Rosetta Stone to unlock the language of Egyptian Heiroglyphs.
So, now we have a mystery solved! In a month, the orbiter itself will land in a one way mission to see things up close. More information regarding Philae’s discovery will be released soon.
ASTEROID FREDDIE MERCURY
In celebration of what would have been Freddie Mercury’s 70th birthday, his longtime friend and bandmate Brian May announced the re-naming of asteroid 17473. A 3.5km-wide ball of black rubble on the other side of Mars, the asteroid shall henceforth be known as “Freddiemercury”.
May, who has a PhD in astrophysics and an asteroid named after him already, revealed the name by video message to more than 1200 guests at the “Freddie for a Day” party at the Montreux Casino on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Behind the venue is the band’s former studio where Queen recorded a host of songs, from Under Pressure with David Bowie to Who Wants To Live Forever? Freddie himself spent his last days at his home by the shores of Lake Geneva.
Discovered in 1991 by the Belgian astronomer Henri Debehogne, the freshly-named asteroid swings around the sun at 20km per second. Its slightly elliptical orbit never comes closer than 350 million kilometres to Earth, meaning that the heavenly body called Freddiemercury poses no imminent danger to the planet.
The space rock reflects only one third of the sunlight that falls on it and at such distance can only be seen with a telescope. “It’s like a cinder in space as many of these asteroids are,” said May. “You need a pretty decent telescope to see it. It’s just a dot of light but it’s a very special dot of light and maybe one day we’ll get there.”
Chris Lintott, professor of astrophysics at Oxford and presenter of The Sky at Night said: “I think it’s wonderful to name an asteroid after Freddie Mercury. He joins a list including all the Beatles, Frank Zappa, Bowie and, weirdly, the band Yes. Pleasingly, it’s on a slightly eccentric orbit about the sun, just as the man himself was.”
Freddie joins a long list of other notables by having an asteroid named after him, including Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut. I can’t help but think of his song lyrics:
“I’m a shooting star leaping through the sky
Like a tiger defying the laws of gravity”
CHINA LAUNCHES NEW SPACE LAB
On Thursday, Sept. 15, after many delays, China successfully launched a Long March 2F rocket carrying the country’s second space lab – Tiangong-2 (meaning “Heavenly Palace” in Chinese). Liftoff took place at 10:04 p.m. local time (14:04 GMT; 10:04 a.m. EDT) from Launch Area 4 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, located in China’s Gobi Desert.
This launch is an important step for China as its goal is to have its own space station. In October 2016, Tiangong-2 will be visited by the crewed Shenzhou-11 spacecraft. The arriving crew will enter the module to live there and carry out experiments. In April 2017, the new Tianzhou-1 cargo ship is planned to dock with the laboratory, delivering fuel and supplies.
Next month, two astronauts will go to the station to conduct research. Beijing has made space exploration a national priority and is the third country, after the Soviet Union and the US, to launch people into space. The mission follows the launch of the Tiangong 1 prototype in 2011, a smaller but also operational model. The module might be small at 10.4 meters by 3.35 meters, but the astronauts arriving there plan on getting as much science done as they can, including quantum communications, gamma ray burst research and fluid physics and research on plant growth in space. Most interestingly, the space station will carry an atomic clock which Xinhua news agency said will only lose one second every 30 million years which they hope will aid with mobile navigation. You can only wish them the best of luck!
CASSINI STARTS LAST YEAR OF MISSION
After 12 years of studying the ringed giant planet, the craft is set to end its mission September 2017, although not without a finale up its metaphorical sleeve. At the end of November, the plan is for Cassini to make 20 weekly approaches to within 7,800 kilometers of the F-ring with its weird kinky structure.
“During the F-ring orbits we expect to see the rings, along with the small moons and other structures embedded in them, as never before,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “The last time we got this close to the rings was during arrival at Saturn in 2004, and we saw only their backlit side. Now we have dozens of opportunities to examine their structure at extremely high resolution on both sides.”
In April 2017, there will be another series of dives through Saturn’s rings called, unsurprisingly, the Grand Finale, during which Cassini will make the closest-ever observations of Saturn, mapping the planet’s magnetic and gravity fields with exquisite precision and returning ultra-close views of the atmosphere. Scientists also hope to gain new insights into Saturn’s interior structure, the precise length of a Saturnine day, and the total mass of the rings — which may finally help settle the question of their age. The spacecraft will also directly analyze dust-sized particles in the main rings and sample the outer reaches of Saturn’s atmosphere — both first-time measurements for the mission.
“It’s like getting a whole new mission,” said Spilker. “The scientific value of the F ring and Grand Finale orbits is so compelling that you could imagine a whole mission to Saturn designed around what we’re about to do.”
The mission engineers have used the gravity of Saturn’s moon Titan to slingshot the craft around the planet’s system. On September the 15th 2017, Cassini’s mission will end dramatically as its last journey takes it through Saturn’s atmosphere, sending data until the signal is forever lost.
“We may be counting down, but no one should count Cassini out yet,” said Curt Niebur, Cassini program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The journey ahead is going to be a truly thrilling ride.”
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.
That’s all for this time spacefans, but please keep tuning in for more space news.