The comet 67P on which the ESA’s Philae is now sitting nicely.
The lander Philae found a surprise in the comet’s dust: the building blocks for life. There had been quite a scare recently for our little probe, which landed on the comet 67P just half a year ago, in November 2014. After it had bounced off the surface during landing, scientists really feared for the worst.
Were it not for the strange luck that often accompanies science, especially in space, we would not have any Philae left to gather data from. In an image released by the European Space Agency, we can see the exact places which Philae touched in its landing. The photo was taken by the Rosetta spacecraft which orbits the comet and which launched Philae to the surface of the celestial body. Upon the pic, the ESA scribbled some text showing the exact points of collision as well as the times for each collision.
Back on the 12th of November, scientists got quite a scare, as they feared that after the first bounce, Philae would be lost to space, left to drift endlessly as it was pulled by whatever gravitational force acted upon it. But to its luck, it didn’t jump off.
The first bounce was clocked by the orbiter at 15:34. This was due to a malfunction which prevented both the retro rockets as well as the harpoons from working. Then, at 16:20, the lander hit the rim of the crater outside of which it was supposed to land. This probably was the collision which saved the little probe. About an hour later, at 17:24, it landed at the opposite side of the crater from the planned landing zone. After another short seven minute bounce, Philae finally anchored itself in the comet at 17:31.
Still, this may have been just its luck. Scientists are now studying two separate amounts of data relating to the composition of the soil. Apparently, at the first spot where it touched down, named Agilkia, the surface was soft, filled with dust and ice particles. At the second spot, the soil was much harder, and scientists say it resembles pumice rocks on Earth. It was almost too hard for the little drilling legs to sink in, but they eventually did.
Now, scientists are studying the data collected and are finding that there are many particles which have been proven to be the building block molecules of life. One of these is formaldehyde polymer, which has never before been observed on a comet before.
Due to its bouncing, the Rosetta remained dormant until June 2015, when it called back. If it were to have remained where it was initially set to land, it probably would have been fried by the sun by now, scientists say. But now it’s working well, and is expected to contact Earth again soon.
Image source: ddmcdn.com