Thursday 12 December 2019

Landing on a distant cosmic iceberg today

Professor Andy Shearer, NUI Galway
Professor Andy Shearer, NUI Galway

Andy Shearer

It left Earth 10 years ago and today is the day the European Space Agency (ESA) hopes to land the Philae probe onto the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

It is the first time that such a difficult rendezvous and landing has been attempted.

Comets are the debris left behind when the Solar System and the Earth formed 4.6 billion years ago. Their study gives us clues as to what the conditions were like when life first developed approximately four billion years ago.

Comets’ dramatic appearance in the night sky with a fuzzy head and long tail have always inspired mankind.

Read more: 10 things you need to know about the Rosetta mission

It is thought most of the water on the Earth was brought here by comets in the early part of the Earth’s life – if it wasn’t for comets we wouldn’t be here today.

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko was discovered by two Russian astronomers in 1969.

In March 2004 the ESA sent a spacecraft called Rosetta to the comet. In the 10 years since, it has flown past Earth and Mars once each, gaining speed each time.

Since August, Rosetta has been in close orbit around the comet looking for a place to land.

Read more: Irish link to Rosetta mission landing

ESA have decided that it is safe to land on the comet and plans to launch the probe, Philae, today, hopefully landing at about 4pm. It will land on the comet on a carefully-chosen site named Agilkia.

To mark this astronomical occasion, Professor Shearer will give a special lecture in NUI Galway at 730pm tonight, which will include a live demonstration of what a comet is, as well as describing the importance of comets to people on the Earth.

If the mission is a success the NUI Galway talk should include some of the first pictures from the surface of a comet.

During the lecture, Professor Shearer will make a ‘comet’ from its normal raw ingredients of water, organic tar and gravel. As comets are in deep space they are very cold and to mimic the conditions, the comet mix will be cooled to -190 degrees Celsius. In this way Professor Shearer can show how the cometary fuzzy head and tail form.

The lecture takes place in the Kirwan Lecture Theatre, Arts/Science Building. The event is free to attend, but spaces are limited so arriving early is advised.

Check out Stem magazine in today's Irish Independent for more science, tech and engineering news.

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