‘2014 Breakthrough of the Year’ Named by Science Magazine
In a year where scientists have turned back the clock on aging and designed robots to think as a group, choosing a standout success is a charge that is near impossible.
However, when Science magazine released its annual short list of the most outstanding contributions to the scientific field, it ultimately made the difficult decision of naming the Breakthrough of the Year. From the 19 exceptional candidates of the past year, one soared high above the rest. The 2014 Breakthrough of the Year is the landing of Philae on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
The descent is a feat 10 years in the making, and the exciting trek of the lunar lander appears borrowed from the pages of science fiction novels. The project, spearheaded by the European Space Agency with a price tag of 1.4 billion euros, began with the launch of the Rosetta vessel in 2004. Over the next decade, Rosetta was flung through the orbits of Earth and Mars, gaining the momentum necessary to align with the 6.5-year orbit of the Comet 67P. Once Rosetta entered the orbit of 67P, scientists could breathe a sigh of relief.
The entry marked a first in the history of space travel and meant the mission was on the whole a success, as Rosetta itself contains most of the payload for the discovery portion of the launch. Because Rosetta is trapped in the orbit of 67P, sometimes nearing 10 kilometers from the surface, the comet's movements can be tracked for the foreseeable future. Onboard are powerful spectrometers and instruments with the capability to scan the comet visually and analyze the composition of its atmosphere. These two pieces of data will give scientists the ability to postulate on the comet’s formation billions of years ago, ultimately providing some answers to our universe’s origin.
After relaxing into orbit, Rosetta’s next daunting mission was to launch the Philae lander. Researchers watched nervously as Philae emerged from Rosetta and made its seven-hour journey to 67P. Philae neared the surface in what should have been a perfect entrance, but for reasons unknown, its rear thrusters and anchoring harpoons failed to attach the tiny lander into the ground of the comet. Instead, Philae bounced around in the low-gravity environment, causing fear of its loss to the depths of space.
In the end, Philae stuck its landing, albeit in the darkened shadow of rocks. Since the solar panels couldn’t be effectively recharged, scientists had 57 hours of battery life to conduct their groundbreaking measurements. Data from the first science sequence was transmitted from Philae to Rosetta and eventually to the mission headquarters before Philae powered down, finding solid ice, a vast amount of dust and a rich array of organic molecules. Further analysis is needed to validate the findings, but the crew is optimistic.
Philae’s beloved Twitter account ends this nail-biting saga on a hopeful note about its future activity: “My #lifeonacomet has just begun @ESA_Rosetta. I'll tell you more about my new home, comet #67P soon… zzzz #CometLanding.”