Black holes, space travel and comet chases

By | Science & Technology
Galaxies Collide in the Antennae Galaxies (NASA, Chandra, Hubble, Spitzer, 08/05/10) Credit @ Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

The past few weeks have been packed with developments that have caused widespread anticipation in the space science community and have stimulated the public’s imagination, as scenarios previously portrayed in science fiction are becoming reality.

First Alan Eustace, Google’s CEO, on the 24th of October plunged from the edge of the earth’s stratosphere, reaching an altitude of 135,890 m and breaking the world record established two years ago by Baumgartner and the sound barrier while he was at it. Then the production of a work of fiction was revealed to have majorly contributed to astrophysics, when Kip Thorne, the theoretical physicist whose work the film ‘Interstellar’ was based on, was interviewed by Wired. Thorne revealed that during production the most accurate stimulation of a supermassive rotating black hole to date was carried out, resulting in both astrophysics and the predictions of computer graphics publications.

Alan Eustace Credit@Wikimedia

Alan Eustace Google CEO, plunged from stratosphere at this October   Credit@Wikimedia

Following these developments, pioneers of the private space industry faced considerable challenges.  Antares, the private expendable launching system (aka rocket) developed by the Orbital Sciences Corporation, one of only a handful of operational private rockets, went up in flames on the 28th of October. Three days later, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space plane, ‘Space Ship Two’, which aims to commercialize space travel and make space tourism a reality, fell apart mid flight.

Yet despite these challenges, both companies are going forward with their plans. Orbital Sciences pledges to transport the remaining cargo to the International Space Station and upgrade the Antares propulsion system by 2016. While Virgin Galactic plans to launch a new spaceship in a few months, according to CEO George Whitesides and the LA Times.

Anticipation, however, peaked last week with #CometLanding trending on twitter, when the long-awaited comet landing took place and the scientific mission was successfully completed. On the 12th of November, Rosetta (the European Space Agency’s (ESA) unmanned comet chaser) released its passenger, Philae, after 10 years of carrying it though space, orbiting earth and other planets on the way to picking up speed. After landing, what ensued was 56 hours of tactical decision making; resulting in the first successful scientific mission on a comet, all broadcasted by the ESA website and twitter in real time.

So what exactly did happen? First things first, Rosetta was launched in 2004, aiming to intercept comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In order to successfully rendezvous with the comet, equivalent speed had to be reached. There are two ways of achieving that: by thrusting, using propellant (fuel), or through gravity boosts/assists. Due to the quantities of propellant needed and the increase in mass that might entail, gravity boosts are used when possible.

Comet 67P (tited blue) Credit@ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Comet 67P (tited blue) Credit@ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

In other words, spacecrafts use the gravitational pull of celestial bodies like the sun and planets to propel them in the desired direction like a slingshot. Of course planets are seldom in the right place at the right time, as previous missions have shown, which is why the mission took 10 years and four assists from Earth and Mars before Rosetta had the required velocity in 2009 to chase the comet and catch up with it last August in deep space. During the journey, Rosetta also encountered asteroids (2867 Steins and 21 Lutetia), providing detailed photographs.

Then Philae was released, managing to successfully descend onto the comet after bouncing twice, despite a malfunctioning top thruster designed to counter the recoil from the landing. The lander surveyed a number of conditions including; the environment surrounding the comet, the chemical composition of the landing site, its internal structure, organic molecule presence, magnetic field, plasma environment, the mechanical and electrical properties of the comet and, finally, visual and auditory data.

Sounds recorded on comet 67P

ESA reported that Philae managed to produce and transmit 80% of the expected data to Rosetta, before the primary battery emptied and Philae entered its hibernation. The solar panels have since been repositioned and there may be a recharge next spring, when the comet flies closer to the sun. Over the next few weeks the first scientific results may be released and light may be shed on the origin of water and life in our solar system, as 67P is estimated to be over 4 billion years old and potentially older than planet Earth and this solar system.

What other space advancements might soon be making the transition from fiction to fact?

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