Monday, November 17, 2014

Is Philae A Phailure?

I had high hopes for Philae – and I’m certainly not alone.

The first to land on a comet. The first to poke at a comet’s crust and innards to see if comets are a potential source of life on Earth (meaning the water and the organic chemicals necessary for life). Optimists had hoped Philae would be alive and actively probing the comet’s secrets for up to five months.

But failures in the lander’s harpoons – meant to anchor it to the comet once it touched down – and in a thruster meant to assist the harpoons in anchoring – meant the comet bounced twice off the comet before coming to a landing, on its side, with its solar panels in obscurity for all but 1 ½ hours during each of the comet’s 12-hour days – far less than what was needed to keep the lander’s batteries charged. A mission optimistically meant to last months lasted only 60 hours, though hope remains that as the comet gets closer to the sun, reorientation of the comet itself will place the solar panels in enough sunlight to revive the lander.

So I have to ask: Is Philae a failure?

No one is saying that – the cheering going on all last week as the lander sent back its data drowned out any other voices, except those complaining about the sexy shirt and off-kilter comments by British Physicist Matt Taylor, a Rosetta scientist. But I think it’s a fair question. Yes, the lander hit its intended landing target with pinpoint accuracy, making Philae the first scientific instrument to make a soft landing on a comet. Yes, the lander was able to send back some data that will likely answer many questions about comet composition. But doesn’t the fact that the thing bounced twice, ended up on its side and drained of electricity after less than 60 hours of operation make anyone else think the mission was less than a smashing success?

The European Space Agency is rightly touting Philae’s success. But how much of this is PR bunko? Seeing the results of the tests will be more telling to judge Philae’s success.

And you may ask, what are my bonafides? I can answer that clearly: None whatsoever. I’m just a longtime sky-gazer just a tad underwhelmed by what Philae has thusfar provided. I still wonder at the idea of using solar power to recharge batteries in an environment where a Voyager-style plutoniumsystem would have eliminated many questions as far as electricity goes. Having multihundred watt radioisotope thermoelectric generators is what is helping both Voyagers survive the conditions of interstellar space, while still sending information back decades after they were launched, after all. Voyager’s primary missions ended in 1989 – fully twenty-five(!) years ago. Yet because of their construction, they’re still sending information back to us. They should still have enough electricity to operate until 2025. And the electrical system they carry weighs only 38 kilos. Certainly a smaller version could have been fitted on Philae, which itself weighs 100 kilos. But that’s just the armchair engineer speaking.

To answer my own question: Is Philae a failure? In my opinion, the jury Is still out. I’ll wait to see what data it was able to cllect, and whether it will be in a state to be revived in the future, before I decide. But right now, the signal to noise ratio seems a bit low to call the mission a success.

I have a friend at work who is much more optimistic about the lander’s performance – it was such a shoestring, he says, to get a lander onto a surface where the gravity is so weak. He’s very excited to see additional information on the mission. Listening to him helps me feel more optimistic. Time will tell.

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