Last week, the European Space Agency announced a final date—November 11—for when it will release its Rosetta lander, a tiny pod called Philae, down to the surface of the comet. Like a cosmic hobo carrying a stick and bindle, it will travel laden with only the essentials. Thanks to Universe Today, ESA, and NASA, we know what it's bringing.
The tools and instruments that will accompany Philae down to the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko are crucial. It's our first chance to truly analyze a comet, and these mechanisms will be responsible for it. Universe Today's Tim Reyes points out that Philae weighs only 220 pounds, so all of the instruments it's bringing are absolutely essential, and have been whittled down to be as light and tiny as possible.
Again, Philae is light—and it doesn't have a whole lot of battery power to work with. So it will bring with it a series of photovoltaic panels, 21 square feet in all, to power all of its busy days spent digging, listening, and analyzing the comet.
As part of a package that includes sensors to measure things like permittivity, Philae will also send acoustic waves across the comet using a transmitter! Then, with receivers embedded in its legs, it will measure how they bounce off and through the comet. According to Reyes, they'll also record audio of the "creaks" and "groans" on the surface.
Image: Institute for Planetary Science.
ESA's team is interested in what's inside the comet, so they'll use a simple method to get some basic measurements: Radio. While Rosetta orbits around the side of the comet opposite of the lander, it will put out radio waves which Philae will receive and return. Essentially, they're performing tomography—imaging the interior of the comet by sending waves through it and listening to how they distort and move.
Here's a fascinating one: A mechanical arm will "hammer" up to a foot into the comet's surface with an accelerometer and a thermometer at its tip—measuring not only the thermal makeup, but how deep the hammer can punch before it's stopped. Other sensors will measure the temperature of the comet as it gets closer to the blazing hot sun.
Rosetta and Philae are on a mission to analyze—or "taste," as the ESA says, the dust and ice on the comet. So Philae will use a drill to collect and then transport surface samples to a series of ovens where they'll be studied by the other devices on the lander. Since the little lander doesn't have much power to work with, the ESA says the drill consumes only a hundredth of the power your average drill does. Here's where it's located, shown on a replica of Philae:
A system called CIVA-P (which weighs less than 100 grams!) will shoot color and infrared images of the landing site, while another imaging system called ROLIS will shoot images of the process of landing, along with close-ups of the comet's surface.
This device can measure the chemical makeup of samples on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko's surface—how much hydrogen or helium exists up (down?) there, for example—by exposing samples to radiation. That radiation creates energy by interacting with the samples, which the spectrometer can measure.
Lead image: Wikimedia.