The European Space Agency announced Monday that it has identified the safest possible landing site for Rosetta on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. ESA astronomers and engineers have been studying the comet to find a suitable place where a small robot can touch down. They have chosen a relatively smooth region on the smaller of the two lobes of the comet. In July, images sent by Rosetta revealed that the comet it had been pursuing had two lobes.
Rosetta’s Philae robot scheduled to land on 67P on Nov.11
Researchers say that the landing will be an extremely daunting task. That’s because the comet has a highly irregular shape, with towering cliffs and deep depressions. Even the flat surfaces have potentially risky fractures and boulders. So, the touchdown will require a careful planning and a lot of luck. On November 11, Rosetta will dispatch its 100kg Philae robot onto the surface of comet 67P.
ESA scientists said it would be a “one-shot opportunity.” The comet is currently about 440 million km away from the Earth. So, real-time radio control is impossible. It will be an automated process where scientists will upload final commands to Rosetta and Philae several days in advance. The landing site was chosen after a few days of deliberation in France.
What are the potential landing sites?
Mission scientists analyzed the latest imagery from Rosetta, which has been closely tracking the comet since early August. Researchers had proposed five potential landing sites. But they finally zeroed in on two: a primary and a back-up. The primary site is identified by the letter “J” and it’s on the smaller lobe of the 4km wide “ice mountain.” The backup site, called “C,” is one the larger lobe.
Both sites will be analyzed further before the final decision is made in October. Researchers said the whole landing procedure will take several hours. Next month, scientists will tweak the rover’s orbit to align it more closely with comet 67P’s movement. If Philae lands on the comet in an operable configuration, it would be a historic first in space science. No probe has ever landed on an active comet before.