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European Space Agency Makes History: Lands Spacecraft on Comet

In an incredible feat involving decades of engineering, the European Space Agency (ESA) made history today by landing a spacecraft on a comet for the first time. The Rosetta space probe left Earth on an Ariane 5 rocket on March 2, 2004 and spent the next decade sling shotting around the solar system picking up speed using the gravity of planets and asteroids.

The European Space Agency Rosetta Spacecraft.  Image Credit: European Space Agency and Wikimedia Commons

The European Space Agency Rosetta Spacecraft.  Image Credit: European Space Agency and Wikimedia Commons

After a 31-month hybernation, Rosetta was awakened by her controllers on Earth to begin her primary mission: rendezvous with a comet. On August 6, 2014 Rosetta finally arrived at her destination...

The Rosetta spacecraft snapped this space selfie upon arrival last August. Image Credit: European Space Agency

The Rosetta spacecraft snapped this space selfie upon arrival last August. Image Credit: European Space Agency

Rosetta's destination is known as comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. An enormous ball of rock and ice hurtling through space at more than 83,000 miles per hour (135,000 km per hour). How big is this sucker? In space, size is relative and can be difficult to judge. So here is a picture of the comet sitting on Los Angeles to give you a sense of scale

Rosetta's destination: 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko Image Credit: European Space Agency 

Rosetta's destination: 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko Image Credit: European Space Agency 

Image Credit:   Matt Wang, Flickr: anosmicovni. European Space Agency. Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko Relative to Downtown Los Angeles

Image Credit: Matt Wang, Flickr: anosmicovni. European Space Agency. Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko Relative to Downtown Los Angeles

Upon arrival, Rosetta began orbiting the comet and collecting data to aid in the most difficult part of the mission -- landing its scientific payload on the surface of the comet. The lander, named Philae, is designed to study the comet's nucleus, composition, and activity level. After sifting through five possible landing sites, the ESA gave the all clear to proceed with separation of Rosetta and Philae. On November 12, 2014 the Philae descended to the comet and attempted to fire a harpoon system to attach to the surface. The harpoon failed,  and the lander ultimately "bounced" on the surface several times before finally coming to a complete stop.   

The Philae lander descends to the comet's surface. Image Credit: European Space Agency

The Philae lander descends to the comet's surface. Image Credit: European Space Agency

The Philae lander resting on the comet's surface. Image Credit: European Space Agency

The Philae lander resting on the comet's surface. Image Credit: European Space Agency

This marks the first time in history humanity has successfully landed a spacecraft on a comet. This feat comes only a few years after the first landing of a spacecraft on asteroid, which was achieved by the Hayabusa spacecraft and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in November of 2005. Apparently November is a good month to land on a celestial body! Comets are distinctly different from Asteroids in that they are made up of ice, dust and rocky material as opposed to the metallic makeup of most asteroids. Comets typically form far from the sun where their water stays frozen as ice. As they approach the sun with their elongated and extended orbits, the ice begins to vaporize and give comets their distinctive "tails". We will continue to post new photos and details from the mission as the Philae begins its science mission. Congratulations to the ESA on this amazing technological achievement! 

NOVEMBER 17, 2014 UPDATE: After landing on the surface of the comet, Philae completed its science mission and returned data to the nearby Rosetta craft. However, it has been determined that Philae landed in the shade of a large cliff that may potentially block the solar energy necessary for Philae to continue. As of this writing, Philae had gone into hibernation mode in the hopes that as the comet approaches the sun, Philae may possibly be re-activated. Below is the first image ever taken from the surface of a comet!

The first image ever taken from the surface of a comet.  Image Credit: European Space Agency. 

Asteroid Mining Firm Prepares for Historic First Launch

Asteroid mining firm Planetary Resources plans to launch its first spacecraft next week. If all goes according to plan, the company's A3 spacecraft will launch aboard an Orbital Science Corporation Antares rocket on October 28.

UPDATED 10/28/2014:  The Orbital Sciences Antares Rocket carrying the A3 demonstrator exploded shortly after launch. Orbital Sciences is reporting a "vehicle anomaly" as the cause.  The mission is now under evaluation by NASA. Video of the event can be found here.  We wish Planetary Resources the best and hope to see the new A6 on the launch pad very soon. 

The craft is named after the Star Wars droid manufactured by Arakyd Industries, a probe deployed to locate galactic resources. The A3 is being sent to the International Space Station, where it will released into space via one of the station's airlocks. The A3 is a low-cost nanosatellite designed to test the avionics, attitude determination, propulsion, and control systems for the upcoming Arkyd 100 space telescope. The Arkyd is an optical and hyperspectral sensing telescope that will begin prospecting for asteroid mining targets in late 2015. It will mark the first time that a space telescope has been deployed for a commercial purpose. 

The Arkyd 100 Space Telescope Image Credit: Planetary Resources 

The Arkyd 100 Space Telescope Image Credit: Planetary Resources 

Asteroid mining continues to be a hot topic here on Earth. The European Space Agency's Rosetta probe arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August, and next month will deploy the Philae lander onto the comet's surface. In July we saw the introduction of the of the Asteroid Act -- the first piece of legislation designed to facilitate the commercial exploration of space resources. Now that business enterprises and nations are developing the technologies required to exploit space resources, space lawyers are hard at work laying the legal foundation for the new space economy. Check out the infographic below detailing how this new industry will take shape. 

We will be closely tracking the progress of the A3 launch here on FuelSpace, subscribe to our news feed to get the latest updates!