Philae (spacecraft)

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Philae lander (transparent bg).png
Illustration of Philae
Mission type Comet lander
Operator European Space Agency / DLR
COSPAR ID 2004-006C[1]
Mission duration Planned: 1-6 weeks
Actual: 64 hours
Spacecraft properties
Launch mass 100 kg (220 lb)[1]
Payload mass 21 kg (46 lb)[1]
Dimensions 1 × 1 × 0.8 m (3.3 × 3.3 × 2.6 ft)[1]
Power 32 watts at 3 AU[2]
Start of mission
Launch date 2 March 2004, 07:17 UTC (2004-03-02UTC07:17Z)
Rocket Ariane 5G+ V-158
Launch site Kourou ELA-3
Contractor Arianespace
End of mission
Last contact 15 November 2014, 00:36 UTC (2014-11-15UTC00:36Z)[3]
67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko lander
Landing date 12 November 2014, 17:32 UTC (2014-11-12UTC17:32Z)[4]
Landing site Undetermined

Philae (/ˈfl/[6] or /ˈfl/[7]) is a robotic European Space Agency lander that accompanied the Rosetta spacecraft[8][9] until it landed on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, more than ten years after departing Earth.[10][11][12] On 12 November 2014, the probe achieved the first-ever soft landing on a comet nucleus.[13][14] Its instruments obtained the first images from a comet's surface.[15] Philae is monitored and operated from DLR's Lander Control Center in Cologne, Germany.[16] Several of the instruments on Philae made the first direct analysis of a comet, sending back data that will be analysed to determine the composition of the surface.[17]

The lander is named after the Philae obelisk, which bears a bilingual inscription and was used along with the Rosetta Stone to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics.

As of March 2015, Philae remains shut down and in safe mode due to reduced sunlight and off-nominal spacecraft orientation at its unplanned landing site. The reduced illumination is insufficient to power its systems, rendering it incapable of communicating with Rosetta. Mission controllers hope that additional solar energy falling on the solar panels by August 2015 may be sufficient to reboot the lander.[18]


Video report by the German Aerospace Centre about Philae '​s landing mission. (10 min, English, in 1080p HD)

Philae '​s mission was to land successfully on the surface of a comet, attach itself, and transmit data about the comet's composition. An Ariane 5G+ rocket carrying the Rosetta spacecraft and Philae lander launched from French Guiana on 2 March 2004, 07:17 UTC, and travelled for 3,907 days (10.7 years) to Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Unlike the Deep Impact probe, which by design struck comet Tempel 1's nucleus on 4 July 2005, Philae is not an impactor. Some of the instruments on the lander were used for the first time as autonomous systems during the Mars flyby on 25 February 2007. CIVA, one of the camera systems, returned some images while the Rosetta instruments were powered down, while ROMAP took measurements of the Martian magnetosphere. Most of the other instruments need contact with the surface for analysis and stayed offline during the flyby. An optimistic estimate of mission length following touchdown was "four to five months".[19]

Scientific goals[edit]

The scientific goals of the mission focus on "elemental, isotopic, molecular and mineralogical composition of the cometary material, the characterization of physical properties of the surface and subsurface material, the large-scale structure and the magnetic and plasma environment of the nucleus."[20]

Landing and surface operations[edit]

Philae remained attached to the Rosetta spacecraft after rendezvousing with Churyumov–Gerasimenko on 6 August 2014. On 15 September 2014, ESA announced "Site J" on the smaller lobe of the comet as the lander's destination.[21] Following an ESA public contest in October 2014, Site J was renamed Agilkia in honour of Agilkia Island.[22]

A series of four Go/NoGo checks were performed on 11–12 November 2014. One of the final tests before detachment from Rosetta showed that the lander's cold-gas thruster was not working correctly, but the "Go" was given anyway, as it could not be repaired.[23][24] Philae detached from Rosetta on 12 November 2014 at 08:35 UTC SCET.[25][26]

Landing events[edit]

Philae '​s landing signal was received by Earth communication stations at 16:03 UTC after a 28-minute delay.[1][27] Unbeknownst to mission scientists at that time, the lander had bounced. It began performing scientific measurements while slowly moving away from the comet and coming back down, confusing the science team.[28] Further analysis showed that it bounced twice.[29][30]

Philae '​s first contact with the comet occurred at 15:34:04 UTC SCET.[31] The probe rebounded off the comet's surface at 38 cm/s (15 in/s) and rose to an altitude of approximately 1 km (0.62 mi).[30] For perspective, had the lander exceeded about 44 cm/s (17 in/s), it would have escaped the comet's gravity.[32] After detecting the touchdown, Philae '​s reaction wheel was automatically powered off, resulting in its momentum being transferred back into the lander. This caused the vehicle to begin rotating every 13 seconds.[31] During this first bounce, at 16:20 UTC SCET, the lander is believed to have struck a surface prominence, which slowed its rotation to once every 24 seconds and sent the craft tumbling.[31][33] Philae touched down a second time at 17:25:26 UTC SCET and rebounded at 3 cm/s (1.2 in/s).[30][31] The lander came to a final stop on the surface at 17:31:17 UTC SCET.[31] It sits in rough terrain apparently in the shadow of a nearby cliff or crater wall and is canted at an angle of around 30 degrees, but is otherwise undamaged.[34] Its final location has been determined within an accuracy of a few hundred meters by analysis of data from CONSERT in combination with the comet shape model based on images from the Rosetta orbiter.[35]

An analysis of telemetry indicated that the initial impact was softer than expected, that the harpoons had not deployed, and that the thruster had not fired.[36][37] The harpoon propulsion system contained 0.3 grams of nitrocellulose, which was shown by Copenhagen Suborbitals in 2013 to be unreliable in a vacuum.[38]

Final operations and communication loss[edit]

The primary battery was designed to power the instruments for about 60 hours.[39] ESA expected that a secondary rechargeable battery would be partially filled by the solar panels attached to the outside of the lander, but the limited sunlight (90 minutes per 12.4-hour comet day[40]) at the actual landing site is inadequate to maintain Philae '​s activities, at least in this phase of the comet's orbit.[41][42]

On the morning of 14 November 2014, the battery charge was estimated to be only enough for continuing operations for the remainder of the day. After first obtaining data from instruments whose operation did not require mechanical movement, comprising about 80% of the planned initial science observations, both the MUPUS soil penetrator and the SD2 drill were commanded to deploy. Subsequently, MUPUS data[43] as well as COSAC and Ptolemy data were returned. A final set of CONSERT data was also downlinked towards the end of operations. During the evening's transmission session, Philae was raised by 4 centimetres (1.6 in) and its body rotated 35 degrees to more favourably position the largest solar panel to capture the most sunlight in the future.[44][45] Shortly afterwards, electrical power dwindled rapidly and all instruments were forced to shut down. The downlink rate finally slowed to a trickle before coming to a stop.[40] Contact was lost on 15 November at 00:36 UTC.[3]

The German Aerospace Center's lander manager Stephan Ulamec stated:

Prior to falling silent, the lander was able to transmit all science data gathered during the First Science Sequence. ... This machine performed magnificently under tough conditions, and we can be fully proud of the incredible scientific success Philae has delivered.[3]

Instrument results[edit]

Data from the SESAME instrument determined that, rather than being "soft and fluffy" as expected, Philae '​s first landing site held a large amount of water ice under a layer of dust. It found that the mechanical strength of the ice was high and that cometary activity in that region was low. At the third landing site, the MUPUS instrument was unable to hammer very far into the comet's surface, despite power being gradually increased. This area was also determined to have the consistency of solid ice.[46][47]

In the atmosphere of the comet, the COSAC instrument detected the presence of organic molecules, including carbon and hydrogen. However, soil elements could not be assessed because the lander was unable to drill into the comet surface, likely due to hard ice.[48] The SD2 drill went through the necessary steps to deliver a surface sample to the COSAC instrument,[46] but it was determined that nothing entered the COSAC ovens.[49]

Potential future reawakening[edit]

Philae appears to have lost all communication capability, but it is possible that by August 2015, when the comet has moved much closer to the Sun in its orbit, the lander's solar panels will receive enough solar energy for ESA to reawaken it.[40] Project manager Stephan Ulmanec said a few days of sunlight on the solar panels is all it would take to resume collecting data.[50]

Social media coverage[edit]

The landing was featured heavily in social media, with the lander having an official Twitter account portraying a personification of the spacecraft. The hashtag "#CometLanding" gained widespread traction. A Livestream of the control centres was set up, as were multiple official and unofficial events around the world to follow Philae '​s landing on Churyumov–Gerasimenko.[51][52] Various instruments on Philae were given their own Twitter accounts to announce news and science results.[53]


Rosetta and Philae

The lander was designed to deploy from the main spacecraft body and descend from an orbit of 22.5 kilometres (14 mi) along a ballistic trajectory.[54] It would touch down on the comet's surface at a velocity of around 1 metre per second (3.6 km/h; 2.2 mph).[55] The legs were designed to dampen the initial impact to avoid bouncing as the comet's escape velocity is only around 1 m/s (3.6 km/h; 2.2 mph),[56] and the impact energy would drive ice screws into the surface.[57] Philae would then fire a harpoon into the surface at 70 m/s (250 km/h; 160 mph) to anchor itself.[58][59] A thruster on top of Philae would fire to lessen the bounce upon impact and to reduce the recoil from harpoon firing.[23]

Communications with Earth used the Rosetta orbiter as a relay station to reduce the electrical power needed. The mission duration on the surface was planned to be at least one week, but an extended mission lasting months was considered possible.

The main structure of the lander is made from carbon fibre, shaped into a plate maintaining mechanical stability, a platform for the science instruments, and a hexagonal "sandwich" to connect all the parts. The total mass is about 100 kilograms (220 lb). Its exterior is covered with solar cells for power generation.[11]

It was originally planned to rendezvous with the comet 46P/Wirtanen. A failure in a previous Ariane 5 launch vehicle closed the launch window to reach the comet with the same rocket.[60] It resulted in a change in target to the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.[60] The larger mass of Churyumov–Gerasimenko and the resulting increased impact velocity required that the landing gear of the redesigned lander be strengthened, in order for the spacecraft and its delicate scientific instruments to survive the landing.[citation needed]

Spacecraft component Mass[20]:208
Structure 18.0 kg 39.7 lb
Thermal control system 3.9 kg 8.6 lb
Power system 12.2 kg 27 lb
Active descent system 4.1 kg 9.0 lb
Reaction wheel 2.9 kg 6.4 lb
Landing gear 10.0 kg 22 lb
Anchoring system 1.4 kg 3.1 lb
Central data management system 2.9 kg 6.4 lb
Telecommunications system 2.4 kg 5.3 lb
Common electronics box 9.8 kg 22 lb
Mechanical support system, harness, balancing mass 3.6 kg 7.9 lb
Scientific payload 26.7 kg 59 lb
Sum 97.9 kg 216 lb

Power management[edit]

Philae '​s power management was planned for two phases. In the first phase, the lander operated solely on battery power. In the second phase, it was to run on backup batteries recharged by solar cells.[19]

The power subsystem comprises two batteries: a non-rechargeable primary 1000 watt-hour battery to provide power for the first 60 hours and a secondary 140 watt-hour battery recharged by the solar panels to be used after the primary is exhausted. The solar panels cover 2.2 square metres (24 sq ft) and were designed to deliver up to 32 watts at a distance of 3 AU from the Sun.[61]


The science payload of the lander consists of ten instruments massing 26.7 kilograms (59 lb), making up just over one-fourth of the mass of the lander.[20]

Philae '​s instruments
The Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer detects alpha particles and X-rays, which provide information on the elemental composition of the comet's surface.[62] The instrument is an improved version of the APXS on the Mars Pathfinder.
The COmetary SAmpling and Composition instrument is a combined gas chromatograph and time-of-flight mass spectrometer to perform analysis of soil samples and determine the content of volatile components.[63][64]
An instrument measuring stable isotope ratios of key volatiles on the comet's nucleus.[65][66]
The Comet Nucleus Infrared and Visible Analyser[67] (sometimes given as ÇIVA[68]) is a group of seven identical cameras used to take panoramic pictures of the surface plus a visible-light microscope and an infrared spectrometer. The panoramic cameras (CIVA-P) are arranged on the sides of the lander at 60° intervals: five mono imagers and two others making up a stereo imager. Each camera has a 1024×1024 pixel CCD detector.[69] The microscope and spectrometer (CIVA-M) are mounted on the base of the lander, and are used to analyse the composition, texture and albedo (reflectivity) of samples collected from the surface.[70]
The Rosetta Lander Imaging System is a CCD camera used to obtain high-resolution images during descent and stereo panoramic images of areas sampled by other instruments.[71] The CCD detector consists of 1024×1024 pixels.[72]
The COmet Nucleus Sounding Experiment by Radiowave Transmission will use electromagnetic wave propagation to determine the comet's internal structure. A radar on Rosetta will transmit a signal through the nucleus to be received by a detector on Philae.[73][74]
The MUlti-PUrpose Sensors for Surface and Sub-Surface Science instrument will measure the density, thermal and mechanical properties of the comet's surface.[75]
The Rosetta Lander Magnetometer and Plasma Monitor is a magnetometer and plasma sensor to study the nucleus' magnetic field and its interactions with the solar wind.[76]
The Surface Electric Sounding and Acoustic Monitoring Experiments will use three instruments to measure properties of the comet's outer layers. The Cometary Acoustic Sounding Surface Experiment (CASSE) measures the way in which sound travels through the surface. The Permittivity Probe (PP) investigates its electrical characteristics, and the Dust Impact Monitor (DIM) measures dust falling back to the surface.[77]
The Sampling, Drilling and Distribution system obtains soil samples from the comet and transfers them to the Ptolemy, COSAC, and CIVA instruments for in-situ analysis.[78] SD2 contains four primary subsystems: drill, ovens, carousel, and volume checker.[79][80] The drill system, made of steel and titanium, is capable of drilling to a depth of 230 mm (9.1 in), deploying a probe to collect samples, and delivering samples to the ovens.[81] There are a total of 26 platinum ovens to heat samples—10 medium temperature ovens at 180 °C (356 °F) and 16 high temperature ovens at 800 °C (1,470 °F)—and one oven to clear the drill bit for reuse.[82] The ovens are mounted on a rotating carousel that delivers the active oven to the appropriate instrument.[83] The electromechanical volume checker determines how much material was deposited into an oven, and may be used to evenly distribute material on CIVA's optical windows.[84] Development of SD2 was led by the Italian Space Agency with contributions by prime contractor Tecnospazio S.p.A (now Selex ES S.p.A.) in charge of the system design and overall integration; Tecnomare S.p.A. (an Italian company wholly owned by Eni S.p.A.) in charge of the design, development, and testing of the drilling/sampling tool and the volume checker; Media Lario; and Dallara.[80] The instrument's principle investigator is Amalia Ercoli-Finzi (Politecnico di Milano).[85]

International contributions[edit]

The Austrian Space Research Institute developed the lander's anchor and two sensors within MUPUS, which are integrated into the anchor tips.[86]
The Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (BIRA) cooperated with different partners to build one of the sensors (DFMS) of the Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis (ROSINA) instrument.[87][88] The Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (BIRA) and Royal Observatory of Belgium (ROB) provided information about the space weather conditions at Rosetta to support the landing of Philae. The main concern was solar proton events.[89]
Two Canadian companies played a role in the mission. SED Systems located on the University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon built three ground stations that were used to communicate with the Rosetta spacecraft.[90] ADGA-RHEA Group of Ottawa provided MOIS (Manufacturing and Operating Information Systems) software which supported the procedures and command sequences operations software.[91]
The Finnish Meteorological Institute provided the memory of the Command, Data and Management System (CDMS) and the Permittivity Probe (PP).[92]
The French Space Agency together with some scientific laboratories (IAS, SA, LPG, LISA) provided the system's overall engineering, radiocommunications, battery assembly, CONSERT, CIVA and the ground segment (overall engineering and development/operation of the Scientific Operation & Navigation Centre).[citation needed]
The German Space Agency (DLR) has provided the structure, thermal subsystem, flywheel, the Active Descent System (procured by DLR but made in Switzerland),[93] ROLIS, downward-looking camera, SESAME, acoustic sounding and seismic instrument for Philae. It has also managed the project and did the level product assurance. The University of Münster built MUPUS (it was designed and built in Space Research Centre of Polish Academy of Sciences [94]) and the Braunschweig University of Technology the ROMAP instrument. The Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research made the payload engineering, eject mechanism, landing gear, anchoring harpoon, central computer, COSAC, APXS and other subsystems.
The Command and Data Management Subsystem (CDMS) designed in the Wigner Research Centre for Physics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.[95] The Power Subsystem (PSS) designed in the Department of Broadband Infocommunications and Electromagnetic Theory at Budapest University of Technology and Economics.[96] CDMS is the fault tolerant central computer of the lander, while PSS assures that the power coming from the batteries and solar arrays are properly handled, controls battery charging and manages the onboard power distribution.
The Italian Space Agency (ASI) has provided the SD2 instrument and the Photo Voltaic Assembly.[97]
Captec Ltd., based in Malahide, provided the independent validation of mission critical software (independent software validation facility or SVF)[98] and developed the software for the communications interface between the orbiter and the lander. Captec also provided engineering support to the prime contractor for the launch activities at Kourou.[99][100] Space Technology Ireland Ltd. at Maynooth University has designed, constructed and tested the Electrical Support System Processor Unit (ESS) for the Rosetta mission. ESS stores, transmits and provides decoding for the command streams passing from the spacecraft to the lander and handles the data streams coming back from the scientific experiments on the lander to the spacecraft.[101]
Moog Bradford (Heerle, The Netherlands) provided the Active Descent System (ADS) that is intended to provide the required impulse to ensure that Philae will descend towards the nucleus of Churyumov–Gerasimenko in 2014. To accomplish the ADS, a strategic industrial team was formed with Bleuler-Baumer Mechanik in Switzerland.[93]
The Space Research Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences built the Multi-Purpose Sensors for Surface and Subsurface Science (MUPUS).[94]
The Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía and the Spanish National Research Council of Madrid have contributed to the mission of designing and manufacturing the ship's medium-gain antenna system, thermal control antennas and the Osiris camera,[102] while its centre in Tres Cantos (Madrid) has developed and manufactured the Star Tracker and the navigation camera control units. The GMV Spanish division has been responsible for the maintenance of the calculation tools to calculate the criteria of lighting and visibility necessary to decide the point of landing on the comet, as well as the possible trajectories of decline of the Philae module. SENER, a Spanish Aeronautics and Engineering Company, was responsible for the supply of two deployable masts, 15 shades of active thermal control and electronic control of all the Giada instrument unit, optical displays of attenuation of incident radiation on two navigation cameras and the two star trackers, and the driver of the filter wheel of cameras NAC and WAC of the Osiris instrument (the instrument onboard Rosetta ship to photographed the Comet), among other components. The Crisa group has provided the electronic unit from the star browser and navigation camera; a division of the Elecnor group Deimos Space, which has defined the path to reach the destination. Other important Spanish companies or educational institutions that have been contributed are as follows: INTA, Airbus Defence and Space Spanish division, other small companies also participated in subcontracted packages in structural mechanics and thermal control like AASpace (former Space Contact),[103] and the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid.[102]
The Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology developed CIVA.[104]
United Kingdom 
The Open University and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) have developed PTOLEMY. RAL has also constructed the blankets that keep the lander warm throughout its mission. Surrey Satellites Technology Ltd. (SSTL) constructed the reaction wheel for the lander. It stabilises the module during the descent and landing phases.[102] Manufacturer e2v supplied the CIVA and Rolis camera systems used to film the descent and take images of samples, as well as three other camera systems.[105]
United States 
According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA has contributed three instruments to Rosetta - ALICE, MIRO, and IES - plus a portion of the electronics package for the ROSINA instrument. ALICE, MIRO, and IES will provide information about the dynamics of comet C-G: how it develops its coma and tails, and how its chemicals interact with each other, with radiation and with the solar wind.


Philae '​s intended landing site Agilkia (Site J)

In popular culture[edit]

Vangelis composed the music for the trio of music videos released by ESA to celebrate the first ever attempted soft landing on a comet by ESA's Rosetta mission.[106][107][108]

On 12 November 2014, the search engine Google featured a Google Doodle of Philae on its home page.[109] On 31 December 2014, Google featured Philae again as part of its New Year's Eve 2014 Doodle.[110]

Online comic author Randall Munroe wrote a live updating strip on his website xkcd on the day of the landing.[111] The strip updated itself every few minutes as new information on the landing was made available. Fans quickly gathered the individual images and made them available on a fansite which shows the sequence as a user-controlled slideshow.[112]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]