Two giant leaps for extraterrestrial research

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While you were busy enjoying your winter break, the European Space Agency and NASA were each busy making astronomical advances in space travel and research missions.

The ESA’s Philae lander touched down on Comet 67P on Nov. 12, 2014, according to an ESA news release, and a NASA news release stated that the agency’s Orion spacecraft, which could potentially be used in the future to send manned flights to Mars, was launched for a 4.5-hour flight test on Dec. 5, 2014.

Philae’s touchdown on Comet 67P made scientific history, as the probe was the first spacecraft ever to land on a comet. It was part of the much longer Rosetta mission, the goal of which was to study the comet.

An ESA news release stresses the importance of studying 67P, stating, “Comets are time capsules containing primitive material left over from the epoch when the Sun and its planets formed. By studying the gas, dust and structure of the nucleus and organic materials associated with the comet, via both remote and in situ observations, the Rosetta mission should become the key to unlocking the history and evolution of our Solar System.”

Observatory Manager and Lecturer of Physics and Astronomy Francis Wilkin elaborated on the importance of Philae’s research, stating, “Philae, and the orbiter Rosetta, are extremely relevant to where our water came from, whether comets or asteroids, and the role of water in the formation of terrestrial and Jovian planets. The orbiting Rosetta’s Rosina instrument found that comet 67/P-G has far more heavy hydrogen (Deuterium) in its water than the Earth, suggesting that the water on Earth didn’t come from comets. The natural alternative is from asteroids.”

Wilkin explained that the scientific community’s interest in the origin of liquid water stems at least partially from the discovery of “liquid oceans beneath the ice on a number of moons in our solar system.”

The Rosetta mission began in March 2004, when the Rosetta orbiter was launched, beginning its 10-year journey to Comet 67P.

According to an ESA news release, the comet had an “unusual shape and unexpectedly hazardous surface,” which led to some complications during Philae’s landing.

On Nov. 15, 2014, Philae went into idle mode because of low light conditions in the region in which it landed. The lander will remain in idle mode unless illumination conditions change in its current location and its solar panels are able to charge its batteries.

Michael Warrener ’16 believes that the possibility of the lander restarting and gathering more data could help scientists improve their models on solar system formation.

Warrener stated, “We have good models for how solid objects form around young stars, and so experimental data to confirm (or even refute!) that would be interesting.”

NASA’s Orion spacecraft was successfully retrieved from its landing spot in the Pacific Ocean following its flight test, and it is now at the Kennedy Space Center where researchers will retrieve the data that the spacecraft’s sensors gathered during its flight.

Orion went only 3,600 miles into space, but data it collected will allow scientists to evaluate the performance of systems that will be “critical to the safety of astronauts who will travel in Orion,” according to a NASA news release.

President Barack Obama congratulated the Orion team’s chief engineer, Julie Kramer White, on Orion’s successful flight test, joking, “America was already the first nation to land a rover on Mars. When an American is the first human to set foot there, we’ll have Julie and her team to thank. And, at that point, I’ll be out of the presidency, and I might hitch a ride.”

President Obama’s sentiments resonate with many in the scientific community. Professor Wilkin’s research focuses mainly on star formation in the Milky Way and the interaction of stellar winds with their environment, so the Rosetta and Orion missions will not immediately affect his research, but, he stated, “One shouldn’t underestimate the effect of seemingly disconnected fields stimulating further progress in unforeseen ways. Countless scientists, engineers and even mathematicians and doctors started out wanting to be astronauts, or reading space exploration novels of Isaac Asimov and others. Human and robotic space exploration feed the imagination in ways that advance the whole species and propel new technologies and industries.”

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