Comet Lovejoy dancing in the night

Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) has been making its way higher into the northern sky these last few weeks and is nearing its peak brightness. Already demonstrating a fully formed coma and an increasingly long tail, Lovejoy has been turning up on the interwebs in some spectacular photos.

Chances are you don’t live in a location with zero light pollution and a powerful telescope, but Lovejoy is bright enough that a decent pair of binoculars will easily reveal the coma (the “head” of the comet). Here’s a pic to give you an idea of what to look for:

Comet Lovejoy, January 9, 2015 by Tom Wolf. Click to embiggen.
Comet Lovejoy, on January 9, 2015. Credit: Tom Wolf. Click to embiggen.

My friend Tom Wolf took this image last night from his home in southern Pennsylvania with his camera and tripod. Cameras are great for picking up details and colors that we cannot see with our eyes. Binoculars or even a small telescope won’t reveal a greenish color, nor will the comet appear quite so bright (unless, perhaps, you have a really nice set of binoculars). But this does give you an idea of the comet’s shape and relative “size”, depending on your binocular’s/telescope’s field of view.

Best of all, the comet is relatively easy to spot in the early evening after dark, making its way from Orion into the constellation of Taurus.  It will soon be passing by some bright stars which will make it even easier to locate in the next couple of days. Sites like Sky and Telescope and Earth Sky have some handy viewing guides. In fact, I’ve been making use of this finder chart published by Sky and Telescope to find the comet each night:

Finder chart for Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). Credit: Sky & Telescope . Click for full size.
Finder chart for Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). Credit: Sky & Telescope . Click for full size.

So bundle up, grab your binoculars, and find this comet. It will take a few tries but believe me, it’s a very cool feeling when you finally “bag” it in your binoculars. Enjoy Lovejoy!

The little lander that could

Rosetta's view of Philae as she descends to Comet 67P. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Rosetta’s view of Philae as it descended to the surface of Comet 67P on November 12, 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Philae now lies somewhere in the dark on Comet 67P. Its batteries drained, it has gone into hibernation, probably for the last time. Its story was nothing short of dramatic, exciting, and seemingly tragic for so many of us here on Earth unable to do anything but watch the little lander die from 300 million kilometers away.

And yet, it was one of humanity’s finest hours.

If you were to stop reading this post right now and head on over to phoenixpic’s post about Philae’s brief, but highly successful race-against-the-clock mission, I’d be totally cool with that. It’s a well-told tale that puts a lot of the events into its proper context.

But I remain in awe of just what an amazing success the Philae lander was. Despite its failed downward thruster, bouncing not once but twice away from its planned landing site, its harpoon system not being fired, a lens cap not coming off its spectrometer, ending up in the shadow of a cliff, deprived of the sunlight it badly needed to recharge its batteries,  despite all of those things….Philae still managed to fulfill its mission.

Think about that for a second. Against all odds, all of the available science instruments on board Philae were able to sample a 5 billion year-old relic from the formation of the solar system. Ok sure we’re not going to be able to go into an extended mission with Philae. We’ll never be able to see a beautiful panorama of the surface and watch it gently erupt as it draws nearer to the Sun.

But there is a ton of data already gathered and much, much more to come from the Rosetta orbiter itself. We’ve come a long way, and there is much to be learned. This is what Ambition looks like.


Philae’s view from Comet 67P

The good folks on the Rosetta mission have been working hard to figure out exactly where the Philae lander ended up after yesterday’s landing, and this morning released the first images taken from the surface of a comet. Most of the images don’t reveal much, but this one shows a fair amount of detail:

Surface of Comet 67P, taken from one of Philae's landing leg cameras. Credit: ESA
Surface of Comet 67P, taken from one of Philae’s landing leg cameras. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

How amazing is that??? When combined with the other images on cameras mounted on the lander, we have the first panorama of Philae’s landing site:

The first panoramic image of Philae's landing site. Credit: ESA Rosetta / Philae / CIVA
The first panoramic image of Philae’s landing site. Credit: ESA Rosetta / Philae / CIVA

As you can see, most of the image is pretty dark, and that’s a problem. Philae was supposed to land in a well-illuminated landing site. Not only would that have given better imagery, but crucially, it would have provided power to Philae’s solar panels.

Instead it bounced, sending the lander about a kilometer back into space. For about an hour, it slowly drifted back down in the comet’s low gravity, eventually landing a considerable distance from its planned location. At this point, it seemed to have bounced again, though not quite as much.

Philae's planned landing site (red) and the area where it most likely bounced to (blue). Credit: ESA
Philae’s planned landing site (red) and the area where it most likely bounced to (blue). Credit: ESA

Space blogger Jason Major was able to visualize this a little better by mapping the planned and actual landing regions onto an image:

To make matters worse, only two of Philae’s three landing feet are in contact with the comet’s surface – in other words, Philae seems to be knocked to one side.

All of this means that Philae won’t be able to get the power it needs to do all of the planned science. But the good news is that it’s still talking to the Osiris Rosetta orbiter and is otherwise in great shape. That means that some science can and will be done, but right now it’s a matter of prioritizing what science can be done with the power they have left.

None of this is to take away from an incredible accomplishment – we landed on a comet, and there is much to be learned. Way to go, Rosetta!

Descending to a comet

As the Philae lander was making its descent (approach?) to the comet, its ROLIS imager snapped this image:

Phiae's landing site from 3km away! Photo byESA Rosetta / Philae / Rolis
Phiae’s landing site from 3km away! Photo byESA Rosetta / Philae / Rolis

I mean, holy fricken WOW! Philae’s landing site is in the middle of the frame, on top of one of the lobes of comet 67P. Philae is down there on the surface and from what I can tell, it’s relatively stable. The hope was that harpoons would fire to firmly attach the lander, but the firing did not occur as planned.

It does seem that screws on the feet of the lander managed to successfully drive into the surface, however, so for now, the decision is to leave the lander as-is and not fire the harpoons.

And this just came in as I was writing this post – a new image of the comet’s surface just seconds before landing!

Phiae's landing site seconds from landing. Photo byESA Rosetta / Philae / Rolis
Phiae’s landing site seconds from landing. Photo byESA Rosetta / Philae / Rolis

Rosetta and Philae comet landing liveblog

Since I’m not going to be able to get much actual work done for the next hour or so, I thought I’d start up a little live blog. Because we’re landing on a fricken comet!!!
Here’s the live webcast:

Rosetta comet landing live stream

10:22 am EDT: Philae undocks and waves goodbye to Rosetta!

ESA Rosetta / Philae / ÇIVA
ESA Rosetta / Philae / ÇIVA

And here’s a view of the Philae lander from the Osiris orbiter!

All three landing legs deployed!
All three landing legs deployed!

10:41 am EST: Philae should have landed a few minutes ago. The whole world is waiting for its signal to arrive at the speed of light. It can’t get here fast enough.

10:55 am EST: Hearing reports that the folks on the livestream don’t look happy. The signal is coming. We’ll soon know for real.

11:04 am EST: WE DOD IT!!!!!!!!


11:12 am EST:

11:17 am EST: It’s hard to describe exactly what I’m feeling right now. So much time and effort went into this mission and yet it’s really just beginning. Now that Philae is down, the science from the surface of the comet can begin. The significance of landing on a comet cannot be understated. Not only is it a remarkable engineering achievement in and of itself, but we now have an opportunity to study a relic of the formation of our own solar system up close.

We do great things when we want to.

11:44 am EST: It looks like there is something to be concerned about. After soft landing a thruster was supposed to fire and harpoon anchors were supposed to fire into the comet. This did not happen so they cannot confirm that they are attached to the comet. Ugh.

The problem is that comets have very low gravitational fields. Therefore, Philae isn’t designed to land on, but rather attach itself to the comet. To do this, Philae is designed to fire harpoons into the surface upon landing. It seems that this did not happen and they’re trying to figure out a) if this is in fact the case, and b) what options they might have to attempt a refiring.

12:19 pm EST: It looks like Philae, while not (yet?) stable, isn’t in any danger and may be able to still get good science done. It’s going to be a while before they decide what to do next and I’m sure they’re not going to do anything that puts the science mission into further jeopardy. I’m gonna wrap up this live blog here and just say how amazing it is that we landed on a comet for the first time ever. Well done, ESA!