Philae Comet Probe Highlights Dangers Of Space Exploration


Despite its abbreviated mission, the Philae mission was celebrated as an incredible success for the European Space Agency.  But it is yet another example in a string of recent stories that illustrate the dangers and obstacles that we face when journeying into the heavens.

As the Philae robotic lander approached Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, its operators knew it was going to be a difficult landing.  A critical thruster, whose role was to counteract the recoil created when the lander fired stabilization harpoons into the surface upon touching down, was offline.  After touching down on the surface, the ESA quickly realized that the harpoons themselves had failed as well.

Over the next several hours, the lander bounced several times in the comet’s weak gravity until it settled on the edge of a cliff and away from the solar energy necessary to keep its batteries charged.  Researchers scrambled to find a way to extend the lander’s time before it went dark while also pulling as much data as possible.  But efforts failed and the probe went silent early Saturday morning.

The dramatic episode was yet another in a string of several recent events that help illustrate the inherent dangers of space travel.

  • Sept 24th :  Indian Space Research Organisation’s Mangalyaan orbiter was successfully inserted into Martian orbit.  Marking only the 22nd successful Mars mission out of 52 previous attempts.
  • Oct 28 : An Antares rocket, carrying several tons of supplies for the Internation Space Station was destroyed shortly after take-off
  • Oct 31 : Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two suffered a fatal malfunction as it began a test, killing one pilot and critically wounding another

From its first missions in the 1950’s, Mankind’s attempts to explore space has been defined by its failures as much as its successes.  The launch is often viewed as the most dangerous stage in any mission, but as we’ve seen with the Apollo 13 and Space Shuttle Columbia, getting there and coming home are wrought with danger and uncertainty as well.

As international teams work to a manned mission to Mars, focus is now on the safety of astronauts as they make the perilous journey to the Red Planet.  Away from the protective cocoon of Earth, missions will have to contend with the ongoing threat of solar storms and damaging cosmic rays.


image courtesy of Huffingtonpost

Still, humanity’s drive to see what is over the horizon invariably proves to be stronger than any threat of failure.  When a Dutch company recently announced a plan to create a colony on Mars, 200,000 people signed up for what will be a one-way trip.  And even though the mission ended far before its planned life, the ESA considers the Philae probe an ‘incredible scientific success‘.  If anything, failure only proves to strengthen our resolve.

Now, where do I sign up?

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