Two highly important space missions reached new stages in August. NASA’s New Horizons probe passed near Neptune on its way to Pluto and other Kuiper Belt bodies.
The European Space Agency prepared a daring program, Rosetta, in another part of the solar system. Rosetta is a probe launched in 2004 with the aim of studying a comet. The spacecraft was set to hibernation mode for 31 months to conserve energy until this January. The daring part is ESA’s plan to land Rosetta on the 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko comet.
The probe sent back wonderful images of the comet as it was getting closer. Based on the information received so far now scientists must decide the Rosetta landing site. Now, the agency announced that five locations are considered.
The ESA team working on Rosetta must take into account multiple characteristics when deciding which locations fits their interests and the spacecraft’s wellbeing best.
Rosetta landing site chosen by mid-September
“The process of selecting a landing site is extremely complex and dynamic; as we get closer to the comet, we will see more and more details, which will influence the final decision on where and when we can land,” said Fred Jansen, Rosetta’s mission manager from the European Space Agency’s Science and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, The Netherlands. “We had to complete our preliminary analysis on candidate sites very quickly after arriving at the comet, and now we have just a few more weeks to determine the primary site. The clock is ticking and we now have to meet the challenge to pick the best possible landing site.”
From a list of 10 initial potential landing sites, only five made it to the shortlist. Several factors need to be accounted for. First, Rosetta must be able to maintain regular communication with Earth from the location. Secondly, the location topography must not pose any dangers to Rosetta and ensure a safe landing. Thirdly, the location must not obstruct natural illumination, as Rosetta’s batteries last only 64 hours and need to be recharged.
By September 14 the final Rosetta landing site will be selected. Philae, the robotic lander with nine extra analytical instruments, will be deployed in November. Philae will send back to Earth the most detailed information on comets so far. The robots has to land in November the latest, as the comet will get closer to the Sun afterward and start melting.