Comet team chooses potential landing sites for daring mission

Half marathon notice

Visitor notice: On Sunday 4 March Cutty Sark and the museum car park will be closed for the Vitality Big Half Marathon. All other museums will be open as normal and DLR and rail links will be running. Find out about road closures

Comet team chooses potential landing sites for daring mission

by Colin Stuart

One of the astronomical highlights of the year so far has been the arrival of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. When it rendezvoused with the lump of ice back on August 6, it sent back stunning images of the comet. For now it is busy studying its new companion. However, a lander called Philae also piggy-backed along for the ride. Scientists hope to land it on the surface of 67P in November.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and four of the five possible locations for Philae Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and four of the five possible location for Philae's landing this November. The Shard - Europe's tallest building - is shown for scale. [credit: ESA/Rosetta]

Now that it has arrived, Rosetta is able to scope out the best possible places for Philae to touch down. The team in charge of the lander has short-listed five potential landing sites. They’ve been picked from a long list and are labelled A, B, C, I and J. Each site has an area of one square kilometre.

We’ve never landed anything on a comet before, so it is sure to be a test for the scientists and engineers behind the mission. If successful, it will be able to tell us a lot more about what the nucleus of a comet is like. This is important because it could help us knock a comet off course if one were ever found to be on a collision course with Earth. It is also believed comets may have delivered water and complex molecules to the early Earth, so landing on 67P will help us understand the role comets played in making our planet habitable.

UPDATE: On the 15th September 2014 the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that they had selected landing site J for their mission.