Can Rover sniff out life on Mars?

FIRST it was Beagle 2 that put Stevenage on the map of space exploration. Now aerospace company EADS-Astrium hopes to redeem itself after that failure with the Rover, a robot vehicle it is hoped will crawl across the surface of Mars at little more than a rover.

Practice run – putting the rover through its paces on Mount Teide in Tenerife

FIRST it was Beagle 2 that put Stevenage on the map of space exploration.

Now aerospace company EADS-Astrium hopes to redeem itself after that failure with the Rover, a robot vehicle it is hoped will crawl across the surface of Mars at little more than a snail’s pace.

Beagle 2 vanished without trace minutes before it was due to land on the Martian landscape on Christmas Day 2003 leaving red faces at EADS-Astrium followed by a further rebuke in a later report saying the project was flawed and under-funded.

Now, though, the Rover, which is costing £154m, has shown it has the technology and the ability to crawl on Mars by completing a series of tests on a mountain top in Tenerife.

The landscape around the summit of Mount Teide, the world’s third largest volcano that last erupted in 1909, proved the perfect obstacle course and, after a week crawling around the barren, rock-strewn tundra, the two Stevenage engineers who carried out the experiments reported they were satisfied with rover.

The vehicle is a prototype of the vehicle that will be sent off in the direction of the Red Planet some time in 2011 and is the central feature in the European Space Agency’s £400m project known as ExoMars.

The Rover is a six-wheeled device that may answer many of the questions about Mars including is there life on the planet?

With a top speed of just one tenth of a mile an hour, Rover was put through its paces by two scientists with a remote control.

“For a prototype it worked very well,” said project head Lester Waugh.

“It demonstrated its capabilities very well and now we have to work further on the semi-autonomous navigation system and the other science packages including the instruments that will hopefully, scan, drill and sample the Martian surface.”

With the same team that gave life to Beagle 2 now working on the rover, there would be cause to celebrate if it actually got to Mars and would prompt a major party at the EADS-Astrium site in Gunnels Wood Road if it found its Stevenage mate Beagle 2.


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Elon Musk Will Put Humans on Mars Much Sooner Than We Think, Astronaut Says

The first space race of the 21st century has Mars as its finish line. While victory is still likely years, even decades away, Elon Musk and SpaceX have made the most tangible progress toward the red planet, and one person with plenty of first-hand expertise in all things space thinks the company could get us to Mars sooner than anybody would have guessed.

British astronaut Tim Peake, who has spent 185 days aboard the International Space Station, offered his thoughts on the future of Martian exploration at a recent event organized by the charity Aerobility. He said the first humans on Mars will likely get there in about two decades, if government agencies remain the main drivers, but there’s a chance private spaceflight could accelerate that timeline.

“Humans on Mars, I think will be the late 2030s,” said Peake. “That’s what the government space agencies and the International Space Exploration Group are working towards. It could be that some of [these people’s] programs bring that date forward. But, the late 2030s would be a realistic time frame. What could throw a big bowling ball through all that is commercial spaceflight.”

Musk and SpaceX aren’t the only players in the commercial field, of course. There are Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, and more conventional private contractors for government projects, like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. But Musk’s company has raced ahead of its competitors in demonstrating the actual practical usability of its rocket technology, especially after last month’s Falcon Heavy launch.

“We have seen the ambitions of people like Elon Musk,” said Peake. “There are several other companies that also have ambitions to send people to Mars. I think that we will end up working very closely with these companies in public-private partnerships when we eventually go to Mars.”

That idea of public-private partnerships is an intriguing one. For his part, Musk has spoken exclusively about SpaceX when detailing his plans for Mars. A partnership with NASA on a Mars mission — perhaps one where NASA astronauts and terrestrial support staff conduct a mission using one of SpaceX’s planned BFR craft to get to the red planet — is certainly conceivable, but it’s not the plan right now.

Still, such a plan could prove the most effective way to combine SpaceX’s cutting-edge rocket tech with NASA’s institutional experience, but that’s not the plan right now. It’s also possible that NASA or another space agency — like Peake’s own European Space Agency — could team with another private spaceflight company, assuming Musk plans to go it alone.

The point is, though, that all those possibilities suggest an acceleration of government agencies’ current plans for spaceflight. If the set target is the late 2030s, it’s possible market competition could knock several years off that, especially if SpaceX can find the same success with the BFR that it did last month with the Falcon Heavy.

The Herschel ATLAS Project Uncovers New Truths About the Universe

The Herschel Space Observatory was launched in 2009 and operated until 2013, running for just less than four years and was the largest of its kind.  By using the gigantic infrared telescope, scientists have uncovered more truths about our universe and in particular, the formation of stars.

The project is run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and revealed much more about our universe than they first thought possible.  Herschel-ATLAS is the name of the actual project and stands for Astrophysical Terahertz Large Area Survey.  It is through this that the team were able to observe the findings of the telescope.  Being built with five filters, the observatory gives a much more colorful depiction of the stars and all around them and also enable them to decipher the distance and temperature of the galaxy they are observing.During their research, the scientists discovered that the universe was actively cleaning itself of cosmic dust that is the raw material that makes up different galaxies.  By using the images retrieved from the Herschel-ATLAS they were able to observe a nearby star pulling in the debris and absorbing it and thus increasing its size while cleaning up space.

The official flight mission of the Herschel Space Observatory came to end on the 29 April 2013 when it ran out of coolant.  Those in charge decided that the best action to take in regards to the telescope being over 1 million km from Earth was to place it into a Heliocentric orbit where it will not reach Earth for several hundred years.  Post-operation studies will continue until 2017.

Is it a rocket? Is it a plane?

A potentially game-changing rocket engine has attracted significant new investment to allow it to enter development.

A potentially game-changing rocket engine has attracted significant new investment to allow it to enter development.

The Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (Sabre) combines elements of a jet and rocket engine. It is designed to enable a “spaceplane” to take off from a conventional runway and “fly” into orbit.

Once its mission is over it would return to land like any other aeroplane. Thus it is reusable, and should make launches cheaper than a conventional rocket.

Sabre is the brainchild of British engineer Alan Bond, who founded Reaction Engines in 1989 to develop his ideas.

The viability of the engine has been validated by the European Space Agency (ESA) during a review undertaken at the request of the UK government. This has resulted in the government’s awarding £50m to aid preparations for the design, manufacture and testing of demonstration engines. The ESA is currently drawing up a contract worth $10m.

Now a private investment has also been announced. Global aerospace companyBAE Systems will invest £20m in return for 20% of Reaction Engine’s share capital, and will enter into a working partnership with them. This will allow the firm to move towards the manufacture of ground-based test engines, a key milestone.

Sabre must first work as a jet engine and accelerate spaceplanes to more than five times the speed of sound. By changing the way it works, it then becomes a rocket engine, accelerating to more than 25 times the speed of sound, fast enough to put the spaceplane into orbit.

The Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (Sabre) combines elements of a jet and rocket engine. It is designed to enable a “spaceplane” to take off from a conventional runway and “fly” into orbit.

Once its mission is over it would return to land like any other aeroplane. Thus it is reusable, and should make launches cheaper than a conventional rocket.

Sabre is the brainchild of British engineer Alan Bond, who founded Reaction Engines in 1989 to develop his ideas.

The viability of the engine has been validated by the European Space Agency(ESA) during a review undertaken at the request of the UK government. This has resulted in the government’s awarding £50m to aid preparations for the design, manufacture and testing of demonstration engines. The ESA is currently drawing up a contract worth $10m.

Now a private investment has also been announced. Global aerospace companyBAE Systems will invest £20m in return for 20% of Reaction Engine’s share capital, and will enter into a working partnership with them. This will allow the firm to move towards the manufacture of ground-based test engines, a key milestone.

Sabre must first work as a jet engine and accelerate spaceplanes to more than five times the speed of sound. By changing the way it works, it then becomes a rocket engine, accelerating to more than 25 times the speed of sound, fast enough to put the spaceplane into orbit.

Beyond Hubble: Will Future Space Telescope Seek Alien Life by 2030?

The iconic Hubble Space Telescope turns 25 this month, and getting the ball rolling on a life-hunting successor instrument would be a fitting birthday present, one prominent researcher argues.

Hubble Space Telescope in Orbit

Hubble, a joint project of NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), blasted off aboard the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990. Spacewalking astronauts fixed a serious problem with the telescope’s optics in 1993, and Hubble has been transforming astronomers’ understanding of the cosmos — and bringing gorgeous images of the universe into laypeople’s lives —ever since.

“It has really allowed people to participate in the excitement of discovery,” said Mario Livio, an astrophysicist based at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which operates Hubble’s science program.

“Hubble images have become part of our culture,” Livio told “I regard this as an incredible contribution.”

While the venerable Hubble will likely be able to keep studying the heavens for at least five more years, it’s now time to start planning out a future space telescope that will tackle the next big frontier in space science, Livio says — the search for signs of life beyond our neck of the cosmic woods.

“Hubble has taught us that to answer the most intriguing questions in astrophys­ics, we must think big and put scientific ambi­tion ahead of budgetary concerns,” he wrote in a commentary piece published online today (April 15) in the journal Nature.

“In my view, the next priority should be the search for life beyond our solar system,” Livio added. “A powerful space telescope that can spot biological signatures in the atmospheres of Earth-like exoplanets would be a worthy successor.”

Hubble’s immediate successor is NASA’s $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is due to launch in 2018. The infrared-optimized JWST will be able to study the atmospheres of some nearby planets discovered by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which NASA aims to launch in 2017.

The agency is also developing a potential space-telescope mission called WFIRST/AFTA (short for Wide Field Infra­red Survey Telescope–Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets). WFIRST/AFTA, which could launch around 2024 if it gets the final go-ahead, would continue the hunt for biosignatures, among several other major tasks.

But Livio has something more ambitious in mind: A space telescope with a primary mirror at least 39 feet (12 meters) wide, with vision 25 times sharper than that of Hubble. (For comparison, the main mirrors of Hubble, WFIRST/AFTA and JWST are 7.9 feet [2.4 m], 7.9 feet and 21.3 feet [6.5 m] wide, respectively.)

Such a powerful instrument could scan the skies of enough Earthlike exoplanets to place “meaningful statistical constraints” on the abundance or rarity of alien life throughout the Milky Way galaxy, according to Livio.

“A large sample of planets — around 50 — would have to be tested,” he wrote in the Nature commentary. “Calculations show, for example, that if no biosignatures are detected in more than about three dozen Earth analogues, the probability of remotely detectable extrasolar life in our galactic neighborhood is less than about 10 percent.”

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy is expected to release a report this June on such a potential telescope, Livio wrote, urging the community to take action to help make the mission a reality.

“First, NASA, ESA and other potential international partners should convene a panel to examine such a project,” he wrote. “Technology-development studies should be accelerated to make a launch around 2030 plausible. The search for life must be prioritized in the next U.S. and international decadal surveys that guide national funding decisions about missions.”

Livio said he’s not advocating any particular design for such a space telescope; he just wants to inspire his colleagues to “think big,” and to build some momentum for a mission that could help humanity better understand its place in the universe.

“Many scientists would agree that the question of, ‘Is there extrasolar life?’ is one of the most intriguing questions in science today.” Livio told “So let’s try to actually answer that question, and do what it takes to answer it, as opposed to maybe taking baby steps that would just push the answer into the more distant future.”


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Rosetta Spacecraft’s Comet Water Discovery: What It Means for Earth

Where did Earth’s water come from? Comets? Asteroids?

New data from the Rosetta spacecraft exploring Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko show that comets — once thought responsible for seeding Earth with water — might not have delivered most of the planet’s water after all. The new finding is giving scientists a more nuanced view of the solar system and its plethora of cosmic bodies.

An instrument called ROSINA on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta has found that the molecular makeup of the water on Comet 67P/C-G is very different from the water found in Earth’s oceans. This deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio throws a hitch into the theory that comets from Comet 67P/C-G’s region of space brought water to the Earth not long after the solar system formed, Kathrin Altwegg, principal investigator for ROSINA, said.

Comet 67P on Dec 1, 2014
If even a small number of comets like 67P/C-G impacted Earth in the early days of the solar system, it still would have greatly changed the molecular composition of the planet’s water today, according to Altwegg. Therefore, it seems unlikely that these kinds of comets brought water to Earth. Altwegg thinks it’s more probable that asteroids brought water to Earth.

“We knew that Rosetta’s in situ analysis of this comet was always going to throw up surprises for the bigger picture of solar system science, and this outstanding observation certainly adds fuel to the debate about the origin of Earth’s water,” Matt Taylor, ESA’s Rosetta project scientist, said in a statement.

While asteroids are dry, rocky bodies now, it’s possible that these space rocks were water-rich during the early days of the solar system. Altwegg thinks that asteroids may have bombarded the Earth about 800 million years after the formation of the solar system, bringing water to the early planet once it cooled after formation.

This European Space Agency graphic details the Rosetta spacecraft’s first measurements of the water on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which scientists say is surprisingly very different than the water found on Earth.
Pin It This European Space Agency graphic details the Rosetta spacecraft’s first measurements of the water on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which scientists say is surprisingly very different than the water found on Earth.
Credit: ESA/ATG medialab, ESA/Rosetta/NavCam, Altwegg et al. 2014View full size image
Scientists have measured the D to H ratio in meteorites from asteroids and found that the water content in these tiny samples is comparable to Earth’s water composition, Altwegg said.

Thanks to Rosetta, scientists now think that Kuiper Belt comets — found orbiting the sun beyond Neptune — are much more diverse than expected. In other words, not all comets are the same.

Although Comet 67P/C-G has a 6.5-year orbit that brings it near Jupiter, researchers still think that it originated in the Kuiper Belt.

Scientists measured the comet Hartley 2’s D to H ratio in 2011 and found that it was very close to that of Earth’s, leading scientists to conclude that comets like Hartley 2 (a Kuiper Belt comet) may have delivered water to the early planet. But because the ratio for Comet 67P/C-G is so off, it doesn’t seem like the comets from the Kuiper Belt could have seeded the planet with water.

Comet 67P/C-G’s D to H ratio is much higher than even comets found in the Oort Cloud, an icy mass of cosmic bodies on the outskirts of the sun’s influence. Comets in the Oort Cloud were ruled out as possible water deliverers long ago because of their different ratio.

“This surprising finding could indicate a diverse origin for the Jupiter-family comets — perhaps they formed over a wider range of distances in the young solar system than we previously thought,” Altwegg said. “Our finding also rules out the idea that Jupiter-family comets contain solely Earth oceanlike water, and adds weight to models that place more emphasis on asteroids as the main delivery mechanism for Earth’s oceans.”

A Rare Event Offers Insight into Solar System Origins

A Rare Event Offers Insight into Solar System Origins

Mars recently played host to an Oort Cloud comet flyby, providing an unprecedented opportunity to expand understanding of our solar system.

On Oct 19, comet Siding Spring flew past Mars, giving instruments on spacecraft from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) the opportunity to observe and examine an Oort Cloud comet for the first time ever. Siding Spring passed within 87,000 miles of Mars, less than half the distance between Earth and its moon, and much closer than any comet has ever come to Earth.

“We believe this type of event occurs once every eight million years or so,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, at a recent discussion of the scientific findings from the comet flyby.

The Oort Cloud is a region at the far edge of the solar system, as far as 50,000 astronomical units (AU)—or one light year—from the sun. The region is filled with icy objects thought to be more than four billion years old, leftovers from the formation of the solar system. Occasionally, the orbit of one of these objects is disrupted, forcing it into the inner solar system. Called “long-period comets,” these objects can take thousands of years to circle the sun.

NASA has known since Siding Spring was discovered in 2013 that there could be an opportunity for spacecraft near Mars to observe the rare event. As it turned out, two NASA spacecraft were in the vicinity: Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). In addition, ESA’s Mars Express and a Mars Orbiter from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) were present.

While the potential for scientific discovery was exciting, the risk to the spacecraft was just as significant. “Comet Siding Spring…surprised us,” said Green. “We had modeled the comet dust environment extensively, and we didn’t believe that it would cause any problems with the operations of our Mars spacecraft.” However, NASA and the other space agencies decided to alter the trajectories of their spacecraft to take shelter behind the red planet during the event. “[A]fter observing…how the comet dust slammed into the upper atmosphere, it makes me very happy that we decided to put our spacecraft on the other side of Mars at the peak of the dust tail passage and out of harm’s way. I really believe that hiding them like that saved them.”

Sheltered from the trail of debris, instruments on the spacecraft began collecting data about the fundamental makeup of the comet and its effects on the atmosphere of Mars. They were able to directly sample the dust of an Oort Cloud comet, which has never been done before.

“The comet’s dust slammed into the upper atmosphere, creating a massive and dense ionospheric layer and literally changed the chemistry of the upper atmosphere,” said Green. In addition to adding a new layer of ions to the Mars atmosphere, the speeding comet—which traveled at 35 miles per second—produced what Nick Schneider, instrument lead for MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph, described as either a meteor shower or a meteor storm. “There probably were thousands of shooting stars per hour,” he said. “It’s extremely rare in human history. It would have been truly stunning to the human eye.” Altogether, instruments on MAVEN detected eight different types of metal ions in the comet dust: sodium, magnesium, potassium, chromium, manganese, iron, nickel, and zinc.

Although the comet eventually left Mars far behind, its impact could have long-standing effects on the planet. When its dust crashed into the atmosphere, it produced vaporized metals. Eventually these metals will revert to dust in a process known asmeteoric smoke. The introduction of all of this new dust into the Mars atmosphere may produce high-altitude clouds above the planet’s surface and could affect its interaction with sunlight. Furthermore, the chemistry of the atmosphere might be permanently altered.

The interest in examining the properties of the comet dust doesn’t end with its effects on Mars. “We believe that comets were formed very early, much earlier than the earth was,” said Green. Studying Siding Spring may offer unique insight into the content of the collapsing cloud that formed the solar system.

MAVEN, designed to explore the upper atmosphere and ionosphere of Mars, is run by Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). The University of Colorado coordinates the science team and science operations. MRO, a project designed to explore the history of water on the surface of Mars, is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Mars Express, which is intended to study the surface and composition of Mars, is managed by ESA.

Europe set to make space history with comet landing

One of the biggest gambles in space history comes to a climax on Wednesday when Europe attempts to make the first-ever landing on a comet.

Photo released by the European Space Agency shows an artist impression of Rosetta's lander Philae (back view) on the surface of

Speeding towards the Sun at 65,000 kilometres (40,600 miles) per hour, a lab called Philae will detach from its mothership Rosetta, heading for a deep-space rendezvous laden with risk.

The 100-kilogram (220-pound) probe will seek out a minuscule landing site on the treacherous surface of an object darker than coal, half a billion kilometres (300 million miles) from home.

“It’s not going to be an easy business,” was the understated prediction of Philippe Gaudon of France’s National Centre for Space (CNES) as the mission prepared to enter countdown mode.

But when Rosetta finally caught up with it in August, it witnessed a sight that caused despondency back on Earth.

Far from being a simple potato shape, “67P” turned out be two gnarled lobes about four km across joined by a narrow neck.

It looked like an super-dark rubber duck, ravaged by aeons in orbit, turning slowly in space.

Its surface was a nightmare of crests and gullies, studded with hundreds of rocks as high as 50 metres (165 feet) and wicked slopes with an incline greater than 30 degrees.

This was a huge, unexpected problem, said Francis Rocard, a French astrophysicist.

“It took a billion calculations to find a decent landing site”—one offering a fair chance that Philae could survive and meet scientific goals, he said.

If final “go/no-go” assessments give the green light, Philae will separate from Rosetta about 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the comet at 0835 GMT on Wednesday.

Photo released on September 19, 2014 by the European Space Agency shows a four-image NAVCAM mosaic of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasi
Photo released on September 19, 2014 by the European Space Agency shows a four-image NAVCAM mosaic of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko

“Then it’s a very gentle freefall for the next seven hours,” said Sylvain Lodiot, in charge of flight operations.

After that comes the hard bit.

No one knows what a comet’s surface is like.

Is it hard and crusty, like a shell? Crumbly? Slippery? Is it brittle—will it crack, causing Philae to sink into some fudgy or spongey substance below?

Seeking to cover all the possibilities, Philae’s designers have equipped the lander with three outstretched legs designed to dampen the impact.

When the lab touches down, it will fire two harpoons to secure it to what—hopefully—will be a robust surface, while a thruster on top of the lander will fire to cancel out bounce. Ice screws in the lander feet will deploy for extra grip.

The chances of success? “Seventy percent,” said Gaudon, admitting to days of doubt that the chances were much better than one in two.

“We need to be lucky,” added Andrea Accomazzo, flight director.

And only then can Philae start its real mission of analysing the makeup of the comet.

Batteries will be enough to keep the probe going for 60 hours, but recharging from sunlight “could keep us going until March,” said Rocard.

Stage set for comet drama

The stage is set for the most dramatic scene yet in the epic voyage of Europe’s space probe Rosetta, whose payload, Philae, will make the first landing on a comet next Wednesday:


The historic attempt to land on a comet will take place more than 500 million kilometres (310 million miles) from Earth.

Approved in 1993, the production cost about 1.3 billion euro ($1.61 billion), involving around 200 backstage staff and 50 companies from 14 European countries and the United States.


ROSETTA, a three-tonne aluminium box of 2.8 x 2.1 x 2.0 metres (9.2 x 6.9 x 6.5 feet) with two 14m solar arrays.

The orbiter carries 11 instruments to map the comet’s surface and analyse its atmosphere, gases in its tail, the dust it emits and its subsurface temperature, mass, density and gravity.

Rosetta got its name from the stone that led to the deciphering in the 19th century of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

PHILAE, a 100-kg (220-pound) lab named after an obelisk on the Nile whose inscriptions were a key to the Rosetta stone.

It carries 10 instruments, including X-ray detectors to scan the comet’s composition, micro-cameras for panoramic shots and radiowave probes of the comet’s internal structure.

Philae has a drill to take subsurface comet samples from a depth of about 20 centimetres (eight inches) for onboard chemical analysis.

It will relay the results of its experiments to Rosetta, to be passed to Earth.

Its battery is charged to give it around 60 hours’ operating time, but the probe could continue its work until March if the sunlight and temperature are right for its solar panels.

67P/CHURYUMOV-GERASIMENKO, a pitch-black 4-km comet named after two Ukrainian astronomers who first spotted it in 1969.

The first part of its moniker refers to the fact that it was the 67th “periodic comet” discovered—these orbit the Sun in less than 200 years.

The comet comprises two lobes joined by a narrow “neck”, giving it the silhouette of a toy bath duck.

If it could be brought back to Earth, it would smell like a bad mix of rotten eggs and horse urine, among other things, tests of its escaping gases suggest.

The prime landing site, dubbed Agilkia after an island on the Nile, is on the smaller lobe roughly where the duck’s forehead would be.


Launched on March 2, 2004, Rosetta was placed in a two-and-a-half-year hibernation in June 2011 to limit power and fuel consumption on its six-billion-kilometre (3.7-billion-mile) journey.

Because there was no rocket powerful enough to place it directly into orbit, the craft was designed to be catapulted around the Solar System with gravity boosts from Mars and Earth on four flybys between 2005 and 2009.

Awoken from slumber in January this year, Rosetta arrived at the comet on August 6.


Once Rosetta is aligned correctly, Philae is meant to self-eject at 0835 GMT from a distance of some 20 km and unfold its three legs for what will hopefully be a gentle touchdown.

The self-adjusting landing gear is meant to ensure Philae stays upright, even if it lands on a slope. It will avoid escaping the comet’s weak gravity by shooting two harpoons into its surface and using screws in its feet to secure itself to the surface.

If all goes well, signals giving confirmation of the landing will arrive on Earth at 1602 GMT.

Highlights of unmanned space exploration

In 1942, the Nazis’ V-2 rocket became the first man-made object to touch the fringes of space.

Since then, humankind has sent scouts around the Solar System to explore its central star, planets and other bodies.

If all goes well, another milestone will be reached next Wednesday when Europe lands a robot lab on a comet.

Here are other firsts in unmanned space exploration:


The first artificial satellite was launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, ushering in the space age and the Cold War tussle for the cosmos.

The beachball-sized, aluminium sphere took 98 minutes to orbit the Earth, and sent the first-ever message received from space.

Another pioneering satellite is NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, placed in near-Earth orbit in 1990, which has provided dazzling pictures of objects in deep space.


Another Soviet record, this probe was the first man-made craft to reach another celestial body, crashing into the Moon in 1959 and scattering Soviet pennants on its surface.

Its successor Luna 3 sent back the first-ever picture of the far side of the Moon later that same year, and Luna 9 made the first soft landing on the Moon in 1966.


This Soviet lander was the first to touch the surface of another planet—Venus, in 1966. A landing capsule was released successfully, but contact with it was lost and no scientific data was returned.

The first soft landing on a planet, also Venus, was achieved by Venera 7, four years later.

Venera 7 transmitted the first signals from another planet, and revealed that Venus, far from being a home from home, would be lethal for humans.


In 1973, the NASA spacecraft carried out the first flyby of Jupiter, swinging past the biggest planet of the Solar System at a distance of 130,000 km (80,000 miles).

In 1983, it became the first spacecraft to travel past the orbit of Neptune, the outermost of the acknowledged planets.

Pioneer 10 and its sister, Pioneer 11, carry aluminium plaques with the drawing of a man and a woman along with information indicating where the probes came from.


Launched in 1977 to explore further afield than ever before, Voyager 1 returned detailed photographs of Jupiter and Saturn before becoming, in 1998, the most distant human-made object.

In 2012, it entered interstellar space, the region between the stars.

Like its companion Voyager 2, which in 1986 became the first spacecraft to fly past Uranus, the vessel carries a 30-cm gold-plated copper disc.

The record includes a “greeting to the universe” in 60 languages, music and 115 images of Earth—complete with a stylus with which to play it.


Launched in 1989, this NASA mission became the first to go into orbit around a gas giant planet, Jupiter, in 1995. It carried a range of science instruments and an atmospheric probe.

It found evidence for liquid water oceans under the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa.


An innovative airbag cocoon cushioned the landing of this spacecraft on the Red Planet in 1997, from which emerged the first-ever wheeled rover, dubbed Sojourner, to explore another planet.

NEAR Shoemaker

The first landing on an asteroid happened about 355 million km from Earth in 2001, touching down at a gentle 1.5 metres per second.

Four years later, Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft was the first to land on, take a sample, and take off from an asteroid, Itokawa, and send the dust it collected back to Earth.


A joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian ASI, this explorer in 2004 became the first to enter the orbit of Saturn, from where it has closely studied the giant planet’s magnificent rings.

In 2005, Cassini sent down a probe, Huygens, to Saturn’s largest moon Titan—a strange world with lakes of liquid methane.


In 2004, this NASA mission was the first to collect samples from the wake of a comet, dubbed 81P/Wild, as it shaved by at a distance 236 km. The particles were returned to Earth in a capsule in January 2006 for analysis.


The stakes facing Rosetta managers in Darmstadt, Germany are daunting as the 1.3-billion-euro ($1.61-billion) project reaches a peak.

Two decades of work have been poured into what could be a crowning moment in space exploration.

The goal: the first laboratory research into the primeval matter of the Solar System—ancient ice and dust that, some experts believe, may have helped to sow life on Earth itself.

According to this theory, comets pounded the fledgling Earth 4.6 billion years ago, providing it with complex organic carbon molecules and precious water.

Rosetta has already sent home fascinating data on the , but Philae will provide the first boots-on-the-ground assessment, using 10 instruments to study the comet’s physical and chemical composition.

Like Rosetta, it will wield a mass spectrometer, a high-tech tool to analyse a sample’s chemical signature, aimed at drawing up a complete carbon inventory.

The showstopper find would be molecules known as left-handed amino acids, the European Space Agency (ESA) says.

“These are the ‘bricks’ with which all proteins on Earth are built,” it says.

The first-ever landing on a comet
Factfiles on the Rosetta probe, the Philae robot lab and comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko


But getting Philae into position will be a white-knuckle ride.

After its launch in 2004, Rosetta spent 10 years zig-zagging around Earth and Mars, using the planets’ gravitational pull as a slingshot to build up speed to reach its prey, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Read more at:

First comet landing site to be revealed

The European Space Agency (ESA) has planned to reveal the site selected for the first landing of a comet this week.

Philae, a landing module weighing about 100 kg that is part of Rosetta (robotic space probe), will probably touch down on Nov 11 on the surface of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which the unmanned spacecraft has been orbiting and observing from a distance of less than 100 km since Aug 6.

The ESA announced Aug 25 the five possible landing sites, photos of which scientists were examining in detail for three weeks to work out the operating and orbital strategies needed to get the probe to each one.

To do that, Rosetta approached to about 50 km from the comet, which allowed scientists to “gather more detailed information about each site”, in particular high-definition photos of the comet’s rocky, dusty and uneven surface, temperature readings and pressure measurements of the density of the gas surrounding the nucleus.

The ESA on Monday will announce the prime landing site and a backup site, and discuss what the specific challenges are with each one, and also other scientific results acquired so far.

Authorities have warned that the landing manoeuvre will be “complicated” and could last several hours because of the relatively small mass — and corresponding very light gravity — of the comet, which looks something like a potato the size of a mountain.

Once the probe has landed and attached itself to the surface, it is expected that Philae will be able to deliver valuable information to scientists for a period of about four months.

The orbiting module will continue observing the evolution of the comet’s activity through the end of 2015.

Rosetta was launched in 2004, and, over the past 10 years, has travelled almost 6.4 billion km on its odyssey to try and obtain data relating to the solar system’s origin.


1,000mph car to use Norwegian rocket

The British Bloodhound supersonic car project will use a Norwegian rocket in its bid to drive beyond 1,000mph (1,610km/h).

Bloodhound artist's impression

The Nammo company, based in Raufoss, will supply “hybrid” motors and technical support to the World Land Speed Record attempt.

Currently under construction, the car should be ready to run in 2015.

Bloodhound will need both a rocket and a jet engine to raise the current record of 763mph (1,228km/h).

Nammo is a world-renowned name in propulsion technology.

Its motors are found in military missiles, and are used also to separate the stages on the European Space Agency’s (Esa) big Ariane 5 rocket.

The Bloodhound team had been developing its own hybrid power unit in collaboration with Manchester-based Falcon Project Ltd, and gave this rocket its first UK test firing in October 2012.

And although this demonstration was deemed a success at the time, it became clear that considerable sums of money and time would be needed to perfect the design.

A decision was therefore made to go with Nammo, which is also developing hybrid technology, but which has the extra resources and dedicated test facilities to bring its concept to fruition much faster.

“It’s a perfect match, a perfect opportunity,” said Bloodhound’s chief engineer, Mark Chapman.

“It was almost uncanny when we started looking at the power requirements, the duration of burn, the scale and size – to find Nammo was already working on something very close to what we wanted.”

Chassis construction
The car’s chassis will have to accommodate a jet engine and a rocket

In rocketry, “hybrid” means a mixture of solid and liquid propellants.

In this case, the Norwegian motors will be burning a combination of a solid, rubber-like fuel (HTPB, or hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene) and a liquid oxidiser (high-test peroxide, HTP).

Nammo’s proposal is for a unit of similar thrust to the Falcon rocket but one that has a quite different configuration.

Instead of one large combustion chamber, Nammo’s design calls for a cluster of perhaps four or five smaller motors.

This is a concept the Raufoss company has been advancing in studies conducted jointly with Esa.

Ariane 5
Nammo technology is used to separate Ariane’s side boosters from the central core stage

The company’s eventual goal is to produce a “sounding rocket” that can put small scientific payloads in space from launch sites in Scandinavia.

To get there, Nammo sees the Bloodhound project as an ideal testbed to mature its technology.

“We feel we have a very robust and simple concept, and this gives us a lot of confidence that we will reach this end goal of providing the thrust Bloodhound needs to break the Land Speed Record,” said Nammo’s Onno Verberne.

Bloodhound will use its Rolls-Royce Eurofighter-Typhoon jet engine to raise its speed to about 350mph. It will then ignite the Nammo rocket motor to go supersonic.

The intention is to try to break the existing land speed record in 2015, and then push it beyond 1,000mph in 2016.

All the running will be done on a specially prepared dried-out lake bed in South Africa.

To achieve the ultimate mark of 1,000mph, the Rolls-Royce turbo fan and the Nammo hybrid will need to provide together a thrust of about 47,700lbf (212kN). Just over 27,000lbf (120kN) of this will have to come from the rocket.

For the engineers at Bloodhound, switching rockets will mean having to make some subtle modifications to the car, not just to fit the new hybrid into the available space, but to position its mass in a way that does not upset the balance of the car.

“Nammo will have test firings next year in Raufoss and when we get the data off those we can decide on precisely what the packaging requirements will be,” said Mr Chapman.

“I’m confident though that we can absorb any changes into our design for Bloodhound.”

Dr Verberne added: “I think Bloodhound and Nammo will make an excellent team. We share the same philosophy on technology and want to show the world what we’re capable of doing; and for a company like Nammo, Bloodhound gives us a window to an audience that we normally cannot reach.”