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Philae has landed

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission has soft-landed its Philae probe on a comet, the first time in history that such an extraordinary feat has been achieved.

After a tense wait during the seven-hour descent to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the signal confirming the successful touchdown arrived on Earth at 16:03 GMT on November 12.

The confirmation was relayed via the Rosetta orbiter to Earth and picked up simultaneously by ESA’s ground station in Malargüe, Argentina and NASA’s station in Madrid, Spain. The signal was immediately confirmed at ESA’s Space Operations Centre, ESOC, in Darmstadt, and DLR’s Lander Control Centre in Cologne, both in Germany.

The first data from the lander’s instruments were transmitted to the Philae Science, Operations and Navigation Centre at France’s CNES space agency in Toulouse.

“Our ambitious Rosetta mission has secured a place in the history books: not only is it the first to rendezvous with and orbit a comet, but it is now also the first to deliver a lander to a comet’s surface,” noted Jean-Jacques Dordain, ESA’s Director General.

“With Rosetta we are opening a door to the origin of planet Earth and fostering a better understanding of our future. ESA and its Rosetta mission partners have achieved something extraordinary today.”

Philae, as seen from the Rosetta parent craft, descending to the comet.

Philae, as seen from the Rosetta parent craft, descending to the comet.

A game-changer

“After more than 10 years travelling through space, we’re now making the best ever scientific analysis of one of the oldest remnants of our Solar System,” said Alvaro Giménez, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

“Decades of preparation have paved the way for today’s success, ensuring that Rosetta continues to be a game-changer in cometary science and space exploration.”

“We are extremely relieved to be safely on the surface of the comet, especially given the extra challenges that we faced with the health of the lander,” said Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager at the DLR German Aerospace Centre.

“In the next hours we’ll learn exactly where and how we’ve landed, and we’ll start getting as much science as we can from the surface of this fascinating world.”

Rosetta was launched on 2 March 2004 and travelled 6.4 billion kilometres through the Solar System before arriving at the comet on 6 August 2014.

“Rosetta’s journey has been a continuous operational challenge, requiring an innovative approach, precision and long experience,” said Thomas Reiter, ESA Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations.

“This success is testimony to the outstanding teamwork and the unique know-how in operating spacecraft acquired at the European Space Agency over the decades.”

510 million kilometres from Earth

The landing site, named Agilkia and located on the head of the bizarre double-lobed object, was chosen just six weeks after arrival based on images and data collected at distances of 30–100 km from the comet.

Those first images soon revealed the comet as a world littered with boulders, towering cliffs and daunting precipices and pits, with jets of gas and dust streaming from the surface.

Following a period spent at 10 km to allow further close-up study of the chosen landing site, Rosetta moved onto a more distant trajectory to prepare for Philae’s deployment.

Philae's first view from the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. One of the lander’s three feet can be seen in the foreground. The image is a two-image mosaic.

Philae’s first view from the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. One of the lander’s three feet can be seen in the foreground. The image is a two-image mosaic.

Five critical go/no-go decisions were made last night and early this morning, confirming different stages of readiness ahead of separation, along with a final pre-separation manoeuvre by the orbiter.

Deployment was confirmed at 09:03 GMT (10:03 CET) at a distance of 22.5km from the centre of the comet. During the seven-hour descent, which was made without propulsion or guidance, Philae took images and recorded information about the comet’s environment.

“One of the greatest uncertainties associated with the delivery of the lander was the position of Rosetta at the time of deployment, which was influenced by the activity of the comet at that specific moment, and which in turn could also have affected the lander’s descent trajectory,” said Sylvain Lodiot, ESA Rosetta Spacecraft Operations Manager.

“Furthermore, we’re performing these operations in an environment that we’ve only just started learning about, 510 million kilometres from Earth.”

Not all went according to plan

Touchdown was planned to take place at a speed of around 1 m/s, with the three-legged landing gear absorbing the impact to prevent rebound, and an ice screw in each foot driving into the surface.

But during the final health checks of the lander before separation, a problem was detected with the small thruster on top that was designed to counteract the recoil of the harpoons to push the lander down onto the surface.

The conditions of landing – including whether or not the thruster performed – along with the exact location of Philae on the comet are being analysed.

An extended science phase using the rechargeable secondary battery may be possible, assuming Sun illumination conditions allow and dust settling on the solar panels does not prevent it.

This extended phase could last until March 2015, after which conditions inside the lander are expected to be too hot for it to continue operating.

Philae's first multi-image panorama from the surface of the comet.

Philae’s first multi-image panorama from the surface of the comet.

Answering the big questions

Science highlights from the primary phase will include a full panoramic view of the landing site, including a section in 3D, high-resolution images of the surface immediately underneath the lander, on-the-spot analysis of the composition of the comet’s surface materials, and a drill that will take samples from a depth of 23 cm and feed them to an onboard laboratory for analysis.

The lander will also measure the electrical and mechanical characteristics of the surface. In addition, low-frequency radio signals will be beamed between Philae and the orbiter through the nucleus to probe the internal structure.

The detailed surface measurements that Philae makes at its landing site will complement and calibrate the extensive remote observations made by the orbiter covering the whole comet.

“Rosetta is trying to answer the very big questions about the history of our Solar System. What were the conditions like at its infancy and how did it evolve? What role did comets play in this evolution? How do comets work?” said Matt Taylor, ESA Rosetta project scientist.

“Today’s successful landing is undoubtedly the cherry on the icing of a 4 km-wide cake, but we’re also looking further ahead and onto the next stage of this ground-breaking mission, as we continue to follow the comet around the Sun for 13 months, watching as its activity changes and its surface evolves.”

A long and hard journey

While Philae begins its close-up study of the comet, Rosetta must manoeuvre from its post-separation path back into an orbit around the comet, eventually returning to a 20 km orbit on 6 December.

Next year, as the comet grows more active, Rosetta will need to step further back and fly unbound ‘orbits’, but dipping in briefly with daring flybys, some of which will bring it within just 8 km of the comet centre.

The comet will reach its closest distance to the Sun on 13 August 2015 at about 185 million km, roughly between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Rosetta will follow it throughout the remainder of 2015, as they head away from the Sun and activity begins to subside.

“It’s been an extremely long and hard journey to reach today’s once-in-a-lifetime event, but it was absolutely worthwhile. We look forward to the continued success of the great scientific endeavour that is the Rosetta mission as it promises to revolutionise our understanding of comets,” said Fred Jansen, ESA Rosetta mission manager.

You can keep up to date with the latest Rosetta news at ESA’s Rosetta blog.

Adapted from information issued by ESA. Images courtesy ESA / Rosetta / Philae / CIVA.

GALLERY: Solar blast

A CORONAL MASS EJECTION, or CME, has been spotted erupting away from the Sun, in images taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft.

According to the SOHO web site, a CME is a “huge magnetic bubble of plasma that erupts from the Sun’s corona and travels through space at high speed.” Plasma is gas that has been ” heated to sufficiently high temperatures that the atoms ionise”.

When a CME occurs, the plasma shoots out into space and travels through the Solar System. If the timing is right (or wrong, depending on your point of view), a CME can head directly toward Earth.

The first image is a wide field, showing the CME in action on January 14, 2014. The Sun has been blocked out in order to show detail in its outer atmosphere. (The white circle shows the size of the Sun – 1.4 million kilometres, or 870,00 thousand miles, in diameter.) The bright point of light in the top right is the planet Venus. (The white flare on either side of Venus is not real; it is an artifact of the imaging process.)

The second image shows a slightly narrower field, again with the Sun blocked out.

SOHO coronograph image of a CME

A SOHO image of a coronal mass ejection spotted on January 14, 2014. The bright spot in the upper right corner is the planet Venus.

SOHO coronograph image of a CME

Another SOHO view of the January 14, 2014 coronal mass ejection.

SOHO orbits the Sun at a special location between the Sun and the Earth called the L1 Lagrange point. At this location, the gravity of the Sun and Earth balances out, enabling the spacecraft to circle the Sun while always staying on a line between Earth and Sun. It is owned and operated jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency.

Adapted from information issued by NASA and ESA.

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Europe/NASA join forces for next step

Artist's concept of the joint Orion/ATV module in Earth orbit

An artist’s impression of the cone-shaped NASA Orion craft attached to the cylindrical European ATV-based service module in Earth orbit. The service module will supply power generated by four solar panel ‘wings’.

  • Europe’s service module to power/supply NASA’s crew module
  • Similar in concept to Apollo’s service and command modules
  • First test flight, a lunar fly-by, set for 2017

NASA’S ORION SPACECRAFT will carry astronauts further into space than ever before using a module based on Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV).

ATV’s distinctive four-wing solar array is recognisable in this concept. The ATV-derived service module, sitting directly below Orion’s crew capsule, will provide propulsion, power, thermal control, as well as supplying water and gas to the astronauts in the habitable module.

The first Orion mission will be an uncrewed lunar fly-by in 2017, returning for a re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 11 kilometres per second – the fastest re-entry ever.

Artist's impression of an Orion/ATV-based craft approaching an asteroid

In this artist’s impression, an Orion crew module and ATV-based service module are attached to further modules and a solar power array as they approach an asteroid. The supplies carried by, and energy generated by, the service module, will enable medium-duration missions to be attempted.

Albert Einstein to launch

This collaboration between ESA and NASA continues the spirit of international cooperation that forms the foundation of the International Space Station.

Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATVs) have been resupplying the International Space Station since 2008. The fourth in the series, named Albert Einstein, is being readied for launch this year from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

The ATV-derived service module, sitting directly below Orion’s crew capsule, will provide propulsion, power, thermal control, as well as supplying water and gas to the astronauts in the habitable module.

Artist's concept of the joint Orion/ATV module

The ATV-based service module will carry the craft’s main propulsion rocket, the nozzle of which can be seen on the right of this artist’s impression.

Critical element for exploration

The ATV performs many functions during missions to the International Space Station. The space freighter reboosts the Station into higher altitudes and can even push the orbital complex out of the way of space debris. While docked, ATV becomes an extra module for the astronauts. Lastly, at the end of its mission it leaves the Space Station with waste materials.

“ATV has proven itself on three flawless missions to the Space Station and this agreement is further confirmation that Europe is building advanced, dependable spacecraft,” said Nico Dettmann, Head of ATV’s production programme.

Thomas Reiter, ESA director of Human Spaceflight and Operations says: “NASA’s decision to co-operate with ESA on their exploration programme with ESA delivering a critical element for the mission is a strong sign of trust and confidence in ESA’s capabilities, for ESA it is an important contribution to human exploration.”

Adapted from information issued by NASA / ESA.

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Venus transit – get a live view from the Arctic

Transit of Venus with an aircraft in the field of view

Observers at the European Space Research and Technology Centre witnessed a spectacular event during the Venus transit of 2004 – an aircraft joined the planet in front of the Sun for a few fractions of a second. Copyright: Detlef Koschny.

SCIENTISTS AND AMATEUR ASTRONOMERS around the world are preparing to observe the rare occurrence of Venus crossing the face of the Sun on 5-6 June, an event that will not be seen again for over a hundred years.

The occasion also celebrates the first transit while there is a spacecraft orbiting the planet – the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Venus Express.

ESA will be reporting live from the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, where the Venus Express science team will be discussing the latest scientific results from the mission while enjoying a unique view of the 2012 transit under the ‘midnight Sun’.

A transit of Venus occurs only when Venus passes directly between the Sun and Earth. Since the orbital plane of Venus is not exactly aligned with that of Earth, transits occur very rarely, in pairs eight years apart but separated by more than a century.

The last transit was enjoyed in June 2004 but the next will not be seen until 2117.

The transit of Venus

The transit of Venus across the Sun as recorded by European Space Astronomy Centre observers located in Portugal 8 June 2004. Copyright: ESA.

Venus – key to the Solar System

Venus transits are of great historical significance because they gave astronomers a way to measure the size of the Solar System.

The transits of the 18th century enabled astronomers to calculate the distance to the Sun by timing how long it took for Venus to cross the solar disc from different locations on Earth and then using simple trigonometry.

Also, during the transit of 1761 astronomers noticed a halo of light around the planet’s dark edge, revealing Venus to have an atmosphere.

Thanks to spacecraft that have since visited Venus, including Venus Express, we now know that it hosts an inhospitable dense atmosphere of carbon dioxide and nitrogen with clouds of sulphuric acid.

Testbed for exoplanets

Today transit events are a valuable tool for developing methods for detecting and characterising planets orbiting other stars than the Sun, planets that astronomers refer to as exoplanets.

As a planet passes in front of a star, it temporarily blocks out a tiny portion of the starlight, revealing its presence and providing information about the planet’s size. Europe’s CoRoT space telescope has used this technique to discover over 20 exoplanets.

Transits are also being used to search for exoplanets that may harbour life. If the planet has an atmosphere a small fraction of the light from the star will pass through this atmosphere and reveal its properties, such as the presence of water or methane.

Map showing where the transit of Venus will be visible

World visibility of the transit of Venus on 5-6 June 2012. Spitsbergen is an Arctic island – part of the Svalbard archipelago in Norway – and one of the few places in Europe from which the entire transit is visible. For most of Europe, only the end of the transit event will be visible during sunrise on 6 June. Copyright: Michael Zeiler, eclipse-maps.com

Where to view the transit of Venus

During next month’s transit, astronomers will have the chance to test these techniques and add to the data collected during only six previous Venus transits observed since the invention of the telescope in the early 1600s.

The 2012 transit will be visible in its entirety only from the western Pacific, eastern Asia, eastern Australia and high northern latitudes.

For the US, the transit will begin in the afternoon of 5 June and for much of Europe the Sun will rise on 6 June with the transit almost finished.

If you are observing the event please remember — NEVER look at the Sun with unprotected eyes, through ordinary sunglasses or through a telescope, as this will cause permanent blindness.

Live updates from the Arctic

The Sun does not set at Spitsbergen in June, providing a unique opportunity to observe the entire transit from 22:04 GMT 5 June (00:04 CEST 6 June) to 04:52 GMT (06:52 CEST).

“We’re very excited about watching the transit from such a unique European location while Venus Express is in orbit around the transiting planet,” says Håkan Svedhem, ESA’s Venus Express project scientist.

“During the transit, Venus Express will make important observations of Venus’ atmosphere that will be compared with ground-based telescopes to help exoplanet hunters test their techniques.”

As ESA prepares for this rare event with observations from space and from the ground, we will provide background information about the transit on a dedicated blog at: http://blogs.esa.int/venustransit/

Live updates will be posted from Spitsbergen during 5-6 June as the world tunes in to watch Venus make its journey across the Sun for the last time this century.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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Three space missions extended

Artist's concepts of Spitzer, Planck and Kepler

Artist's concepts of Spitzer, Planck and Kepler. NASA extended Spitzer and Kepler for two additional years; and the US portion of Planck, a European Space Agency mission, for one year. (Relative sizes not to scale.)

NASA HAS EXTENDED three missions—Kepler, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the US portion of the European Space Agency’s Planck mission—as a result of the 2012 Senior Review of Astrophysics Missions.

“This means scientists can continue using the three spacecraft to study everything from the birth of the universe with Planck, and galaxies, stars, planets, comets and asteroids with Spitzer, while Kepler is determining what percentage of Sun-like stars host potentially habitable Earth-like planets,” said Michael Werner, the chief scientist for astronomy and physics at JPL.

Kepler has been approved for extension through fiscal year 2016, providing four additional years to find Earth-size planets in the habitable zone—the region in a planetary system where liquid water could exist on the surface of the orbiting planet—around Sun-like stars in our galaxy.

Spitzer, launched in 2003, will continue to provide the astronomical community with its unique infrared images for another two years. It has continued to explore the cosmos since running out of coolant, as expected, in 2009.

Among its many duties during its “warm mission”, the observatory is probing the atmospheres of planets beyond our Sun and investigating the glow of some of the most distant galaxies known. As requested by the project, Spitzer received two additional years of operations.

NASA will fund an additional year of US participation in the European Space Agency’s Planck mission. Planck, launched in 2009, is gathering data from the very early universe, shortly after its explosive birth in a big bang. Planck’s observations are yielding insight into the origin, evolution and fate of our universe.

More information:

Kepler mission

Spitzer Space Telescope

Planck mission

Adapted from information issued by JPL. Images courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech.

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Space foil helps build safer cars

Hermes spaceplane

Europe’s Hermes spaceplane was intended to provide independent European manned access to space. Designed to take three astronauts to orbits of up to 800 km altitude on missions of 30–90 days, the spaceplane would have been launched using the Ariane 5 rocket.

A SPECIAL FOIL SENSOR developed to measure the pressure on a spaceplane’s wings during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere is now helping to build safer cars.

This ‘space’ foil has been transformed into a new super-thin and accurate sensor used by VW to measure every deformation suffered by cars during crash tests.

It all started in the early 1990s, when German engineer Paul Mirow was working on Europe’s Hermes spaceplane at Technical University Berlin. Hermes was planned as a reusable manned vehicle launched on Ariane 5.

To map the pressure distribution on the wings as Hermes returned through the atmosphere, a new sensor was needed because regular instruments were too bulky and added unrealistic drag. So Paul’s team turned to a special ‘piezoelectric’ foil to do the job.

Piezoelectric materials on a tooth

Piezoelectric materials were painted on a tooth to measure the forces exerted by a toothbrush.

Piezoelectric materials have a special property that converts physical effects like vibration and pressure into minute electric pulses. “It takes movement, forces or vibration, and turns it into an electrical signal,” Paul notes.

Super-thin sensor

In foil form, piezoelectric materials can serve as extremely lightweight sensors, able to cover an entire surface without distorting the results by adding drag.

“The piezoelectric foil is very thin, about 30 microns – a third of the thickness of a human hair,” explains Paul.

While other types of sensors create obstacles, with these piezoelectric foils, “You can just glue it to the surface, without creating any disturbances in the structure.”

The tests of Hermes’ wing in a hypersonic wind tunnel went well, and in 1995 Paul and his partners decided to adapt their piezoelectric foil for terrestrial applications.

One was even created for a dental company: “We painted a tooth with piezoelectric paint so they could measure the forces created by the toothbrush on the molar.”

Piezoelectric sensor

To map the pressure distribution on Hermes' wings as the spaceplane returned through the atmosphere, a new sensor was developed based on super-thin piezoelectric materials. They have a special property that converts physical effects like vibration and pressure into minute electric pulses.

Making cars safer

One of the most exciting applications was developed for VW to use in their crash tests.

At the yearly Hannover Fair, the German car company saw Paul’s products at the stand organised by ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office and its German partner, technology broker MST Aerospace.

VW hoped that the space sensors would solve a problem encountered in crash tests: sensors on cars are often destroyed at impact, making it difficult to collect highly accurate data throughout the crash process.

Contained in a highly flexible polymer film, the piezoelectric sensor is simply applied to the car’s surfaces. It moves with the metal as the car crashes, rather than being destroyed by the impact.

“The VW people asked, ‘is it possible to use this in crash tests?’” recalls Paul. “We said, ‘let’s try.’”

“We wanted to know at which moment which parts of the car are deformed,” explained Jens Weinrich, an engineer at VW.

“In a crash situation, it’s always a problem that you never know exactly what will happen.”

Crash test

The foil sensor is now used by German Volkswagen to measure their crash tests.

Paul’s firm developed a sensor in which each strip of foil contains 50 piezoelectric sensors, each about a square centimetre.

This makes it possible to measure exactly what is happening, and when, in exactly which places on the car. How fast is the metal bending? Is it bending 20º in one direction, or 60º in the other? And where precisely did it bend?

At the end of each strip, an equally thin, flexible printed circuit board with a 50-channel amplifier records the electrical impulses created by the mechanical deformations.

“We wanted not just qualitative, but also quantitative results,” said Mr Weinrich. “We wanted to know where it folded, and how much it folded.”

Following the development of the piezoelectric foil sensors, VW has now used them in a number of crash tests.

Adapted from information issued by ESA. Images courtesy ESA / D. Ducros / Mirow Systemtechnik GmbH / Volkswagen Media Service.

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Journey to the Sun!

AN AMBITIOUS MISSION to study the Sun is set for launch in 2017. Solar Orbiter will perform a close-up study of our Sun and inner heliosphere—the uncharted innermost regions of our Solar System—to better understand, and even predict, the unruly behaviour of the star on which our lives depend.

At its closest point, the spacecraft will be closer to the Sun than any previous spacecraft, braving the fierce heat and will carry its telescopes to almost one-quarter of Earth’s distance from our nearest star.

The European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter will be the first satellite to provide close-up views of the Sun’s polar regions, which are very difficult to see from Earth. It will be able to almost match the Sun’s rotation around its axis for several days, and so it will be able for the first time to see solar storms building up over an extended period from the same viewpoint. It will also deliver data of the side of the Sun not visible from Earth.

Following “gravity assist” swing-bys of Venus and the Earth, Solar Orbiter will settle into a 168-day-long orbit around the Sun from which the spacecraft will begin its data collection mission.

Along this orbit, the spacecraft will reach closest approach to the Sun every five months—at around 42 million kilometres.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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Herschel telescope reveals invisible cosmos

HERSHEL, A CUTTING-EDGE SPACE OBSERVATORY, carries the largest, most powerful infrared telescope ever launched.

A pioneering mission of the European Space Agency, it is studying the origin and evolution of stars and galaxies to help understand how the Universe came to be the way it is today.

For this purpose Herschel is looking, at far-infrared and submillimetre wavelengths, at objects that are among the coldest in space.

Launched in May 2009 it has already given great results to the scientific community by revealing invisible parts of the universe.

More information:

ESA Herschel mission

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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Tribute to the shuttle

http://youtu.be/b9VXeqzqqss

THE SPACE SHUTTLE IS PERHAPS the most complex technological system ever built. In 30 years, it has launched 135 times and helped humankind to dispatch and partially even return many satellites and deep-space probes, to build the International Space Station and to conduct out-of-this-world science. The shuttle has transported also 24 European astronauts to Earth orbit on 25 missions.

This short video highlights the flights that had a European flavour—from STS-9 in 1983 to STS-134 in May 2011.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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Dealing with space hazards

PEOPLE AND GOVERNMENTS rely on satellites for a growing number of crucial tasks. Any shutdown of these systems would seriously affect an enormous range of commercial and civil activities, including travel, transportation, telecommunications, information technology and broadcasting.

Europe, in particular, has no autonomous capability to watch for and warn of hazards to its vital satellites and ground infrastructure.

But in 2009, European Space Agency member states asked the Agency to embark on a new programme, known as Space Situational Awareness, or SSA. Now in its initial phase, SSA aims to develop Europe’s own scanning, detection and warning capabilities against space weather, space debris and natural near-earth objects.

Adapted from information issued by ESA.

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