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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

Rosetta identifies five possible landing sites for Philae

Posted By Emily Lakdawalla

26-08-2014 9:59 CDT

Topics: Rosetta and Philae, pretty pictures, comets, mission status, comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko

The Rosetta team has announced the selection of five regions on Churyumov-Gerasimenko that they will study as possible landing sites for little Philae. Two of the possible five are on the larger lobe of the comet, and three are on the smaller lobe. Now, as Rosetta surveys the comet from its second triangular "orbit" at an average distance of 60 kilometers, the mission will target these spots for extra attention. They'll examine the sites at closer and closer range over the coming weeks. They particularly need to know how rough the surface is at the scale of the lander, and to understand how local topography relates to the odd gravity field on this little world. They have to work fast; their goal is to identify a primary landing site by September 14.

Here are the views of the landing sites that ESA released, both regional ones identifying the locations of the sites, and more close-up ones of the individual sites. Thanks to Gerald Eichstädt for assembling these into an easy-to-digest single image:

Five possible landing sites for Philae

ESA / Rosetta / DLR / MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / SSO / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA

Five possible landing sites for Philae
At a meeting on August 23 and 24, 2014, the Rosetta and Philae teams identified five regions on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko where the lander might touch down in November.

The close-up images are from OSIRIS, the first such photos released since a 3D view released on the 14th. However, unlike the 3D view, these photos of the landing sites don't represent the full capability of the OSIRIS camera; they are small 540-pixel-square images cropped from the full 2048-pixel-square detector.

I found another image on the CNES website that shows a shape model of the comet, and all the sites marked:

Five possible landing sites for Philae (shape model)

ESA / Rosetta / CNES

Five possible landing sites for Philae (shape model)

I wanted to take a look at these sites in more detail, so I piled together all the NavCam photos that they have released from August 5 to today. I resized them all to a common scale of 5 meters per pixel, and tried to group them together according to their geometry. Then I dropped in circles atop the landing sites. All the circles are 1 kilometer in diameter, the approximate stated size of the Philae landing ellipse. Please don't take this map as gospel -- it's not a European Space Agency product, it's just my best effort at plotting the site locations on the released NavCam images.

Possible landing sites for Philae on NavCam images of Churyumov-Gerasimenko

ESA / Rosetta / NavCam / Emily Lakdawalla

Possible landing sites for Philae on NavCam images of Churyumov-Gerasimenko
All of the NavCam images of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken between August 5 and August 22, 2014 have been organized according to their geometry and labeled with the five selected landing sites. (Labels were drawn by Emily Lakdawalla and may contain errors. Do not use for spacecraft navigation.) All images have been resized to a common scale of 5 meters per pixel; the scale bar is 5 kilometers long. Circles drawn on landing sites are 1 kilometer in diameter. An unlabeled version of this mosaic is available here.

Here are more detailed descriptions of each site, consisting of text edited from a combination of the ESA press release and the DLR press release:

Site A is located in an interesting region on the larger comet lobe, which allows a view of the smaller comet lobe. The narrow area between these two parts is probably already active as the comet begins its journey closer to the Sun. Images with increasing resolution will now allow more detailed investigations to assess the risks posed by small depressions and slopes on this landing site. The illumination conditions also need to be analysed in more detail.

Site B, within the crater-like structure on the smaller lobe, has a flat terrain and is thus considered relatively safe for landing, but illumination conditions may pose a problem when considering the longer-term science planning of Philae. Higher-resolution imaging will be needed to assess the boulder hazards in more detail. In addition, the boulders are also thought to represent more recently processed material and therefore this site may not be as pristine as some of the others.

Site C lies on the larger lobe of the comet. Here, scientists have found a range of different landforms such as depressions, cliffs, hills and flat areas – and also material that appears brighter than usual on the acquired images and is thus particularly interesting. But it is precisely these surface structures that must now be looked at in more detail to assess the risks they could pose for a safe landing. The illumination conditions are good, which will be of benefit to the later phases of scientific investigation.

Site I is a relatively flat area on the smaller lobe that may contain some fresh material, but higher-resolution imaging is needed to assess the extent of the rough terrain. The illumination conditions should also allow for longer-term science planning.

Site J is similar to site I – the landing site also sits on the smaller comet lobe, has interesting surface features and good lighting. This landing site is the most favourable for the CONSERT experiment, which will probe the comet's interior by studying radio waves that are reflected and scattered by the nucleus. This landing site is more favourable than landing site I. However, since there are some boulders and terracing features, higher-resolution camera images will be necessary to study the terrain in detail.

Some generalizations: Sites A, B, and C are all very easy to pick out as landmarks on the comet. Site A is a large circular feature with a steep scarp that is located on the large lobe near the comet's north spin pole, so it shows up in most of the Rosetta images released to date. Site B is the prominent circular feature at the 180-degree mark on the end of the smaller lobe. Site C is an interesting smooth area on the large lobe with a small depression in its center. By contrast, sites I and J have no obvious landmarks. (For that reason, I'm not totally confident in my identification of sites I and J in every image in the montage above.) When you look at the shape model, you can see that I and J are sort of flat facets on the small lobe, but they seem to have rugged topography in the NavCam images. Only one of the sites -- A -- would seem to afford views of one lobe from the other lobe, but I'm not sure that's guaranteed. None of the sites is on the wide, flat region on the end of the larger lobe.

I suggest clicking to enlarge the photo above and taking a tour of the sites. I can't say I'd feel totally confident about selecting any of them. They all contain flat areas but also dramatic scarps and boulders. J, B, and I are all on the fastest-moving part of the comet, near the equator on the pointy end. A looks like a challenge to get to, nestled as it is between the two lobes, but it's very close to the spin pole, so I could see a fairly straight descent down onto it. I'm just speculating here, though -- I don't know anything about what the Philae landing trajectory looks like and whether it's helpful or not to have a slower-moving site close to the spin pole. C is illuminated nearly all of the time, and I thought they needed more darkness than that. It appears from the comments on the different sites that the CONSERT experiment would prefer Philae land on the small lobe. CONSERT is the one where they broacast radio waves through the comet between Rosetta and Philae to probe its interior; I would guess they'd get a stronger signal with a shorter path through the comet.

It seems I'm not the only one puzzling over how to locate the landing sites; I was amused to see this tweet from Philae Ptolemy (the gas cromatograph mass spectrometer on the Rosetta lander) this morning:

See other posts from August 2014


Read more blog entries about: Rosetta and Philae, pretty pictures, comets, mission status, comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko


Xiaosi Zhou: 08/26/2014 10:56 CDT

Site B is perfect~

Kalle Centergren: 08/26/2014 10:56 CDT

i am hoping for site A, imagine that panorama with half the comet towering up over you! :)

morganism: 08/26/2014 11:10 CDT

Not that jazzed about any of the picks, but would vote A. At least is has a nearby cliff with some possible stratigraphy. I would also be a bit concerned about some of the "flat" areas. If the craters and flats covered with finer regolith is actually covered with graphite, not going to be much to attach too I was really hoping they would pick the collapsed crater wall at the ducks ear, above the throat bulge. Looks like the freshest exposure on the whole rock

Tim R: 08/26/2014 07:47 CDT

I am not surprised that someone thought of the scrunched up paper model of the comet. P67 seems to be a surface collapsed upon itself over the eons. Additionally, the craters don't seem like impacts but rather many or most seem more like sinkholes. Philae will approach comet P67 at about 2 mph from about an altitude of 20 miles. It will take 10 hours and probably more like 12 or a bit more to descend and touchdown (accounting for accel/deceleration). So as Philae descends, there will be some remarkable imagery of the comet completing a full 12.7 hour rotation below it. Philae will have to cancel out the transverse vector between it and the rotating body it approaches. For this reason, I suspect that the planners are favoring site I or site C or maybe A which should be less challenging in this respect of the descent and final approach. But site A must be heavily favored by scientists for the chance to study the "Cliffs of Dover" (sorry about that), that is, to study the really interesting escarpment on the "Duck's" head which seems to have layering. Lastly, what Rosetta/Philae and OSIRIS-X and other small body missions are proving is that one does not need humans to study asteroids or comet surfaces; another reason to file away Pasadena's ARM concept to give SLS and Orion a first mission.

David Salo: 08/27/2014 10:02 CDT

Perhaps it doesn't matter much if Philae is successfully able to tether itself to the comet, but I am not sure that all of these landing sites are level relative to the comet's center of mass — not that I'm too certain where that is. But site A in particular seems extremely steep, and if Philae isn't able to tie itself down, it seems to me that it's likely to tumble (slowly, I suppose) toward the center of mass.

Bill Campbell: 08/27/2014 11:26 CDT

This mission and the pictures continue to amaze. God speed a successful landing and let this run for a long time yet. :)

Frank Dougherty: 08/29/2014 02:53 CDT

Hello Emily! I think that we should be looking for telltale signs of previous venting (small holes or depressions?) and possibly grouped closely and put Philae down just outside this grouping so we get a front row seat! -Maybe we could use some of the earlier pictures from other venting comets and that would help us know what to look for this time s we close in! Keep up the great work! You've the best job in the world! : - )

Johan Martinez: 08/30/2014 05:10 CDT

Is a lot of activity expected from the comet once it gets closer to the sun? I ask because all the sites look like places where ice will sublimate once the heat from the sun rises, of course I am only guessing but that was my first thought looking at the images.

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