The Rosetta mission’s try and drop the Philae lander on a comet in 2014 didn’t go in response to plan. The harpoon mechanism meant to stay Philae to terra-not-quite-firma didn’t work, and poor Philae ended up bouncing round and touchdown underneath a darkish cliff overhang, unable to deploy its photo voltaic panels and full its duties. However let it not be mentioned that Philae failed to depart its mark. As a result of it did. Fairly actually.
To extract worth from Philae’s unintended journey, researchers have labored exhausting to establish the spots the place the craft impacted the floor of the comet. This required painstaking evaluation of Philae’s movement sensors to reconstruct its trajectory, together with a terrifically advanced recreation of “one among this stuff is just not just like the others” performed with before-and-after pictures of the comet’s jumbled floor.
The location of the preliminary bounce was straightforward sufficient to search out, however the path from there to its resting place was one other story. A brand new examine led by the European House Company’s Laurence O’Rourke reveals one other spot the place Philae dented comet 67P. And the scale of that dent really tells us one thing outstanding about what comets are like.
Researchers ultimately discovered a spot they dubbed “skull-top ridge” the place a pair of boulders separated by a crevice appeared to have met Philae. After the touchdown, a shiny spot appeared in that crevice, as if floor mud had been eliminated to reveal water ice within the boulder. And certainly, spectral knowledge from imagery confirms that the brilliant spot is essentially water ice. Whereas water ice makes up a considerable portion of comets—which are sometimes considerably rudely known as “soiled snowballs”—a comet’s floor consists of a layer of mud left behind as daylight drives off the outermost ice, so really seeing ice there’s telling.
Philae’s preliminary landing location was in a flat spot doubtless coated by a thick layer of that mud. Its encounter with this boulder represents an interplay with one thing extra much like the comet’s inside.
The crew estimates the depth of the dent it left behind at about 25 centimeters. Utilizing the recorded velocity of the 100-kilogram craft, this allowed them to calculate the boulder’s sturdiness—or lack thereof, because it seems. They discovered that the boulder was really about as tender as fluffy snow on Earth.
This illustrates one thing that Rosetta efficiently measured: the comet is extraordinarily porous. The excessive water ice and CO2 ice content material may make you suppose the comet is a tough, frozen block, however round 75 p.c of its quantity is void house in between grains of ice and mud. With out robust gravity to tug issues collectively, comets simply aren’t that dense.
This isn’t the primary estimate of the comet’s materials power to return out of the Philae touchdown try. The estimate based mostly on Philae’s preliminary landing crater was considerably sturdier, extra much like the regolith of our Moon, however that was doubtless the thick mud layer. A drilling experiment carried out by Philae returned an almost rock-like power estimate, far surpassing any others. Nevertheless it’s not clear what materials was being drilled, or if the measurement was even correct.
However as College of Arizona researcher Erik Asphaug writes in a abstract accompanying the brand new examine within the journal Nature, this all highlights the problem of missions concentrating on comets. A pattern assortment mission, for instance, must consider carefully about what to pattern and the way that materials may behave.
“This isn’t the primary misadventure to happen on the floor of a small planetary physique, nor will or not it’s the final,” Asphaug writes. “Sadly, the findings additionally recommend that the most effective locations to pattern comets won’t be the flat plains, however alongside the newly uncovered ridges, cliffs and boulder piles, that are harder to land on.”
And touchdown on a flat plain proved troublesome sufficient.