The European Space Agency has just released a slew of new images from Philae, the little lander that was supposed to touch down on a comet earlier this year. But the history-making moment didn't go quite as planned. After failing to anchor into Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the spacecraft bounced around a few times until finally skidding to a halt on the rim of a crater. The Rosetta mission team hasn't managed to get a stable communication link with the battered lander.
The galaxy is a pretty big place, so NASA's announcement today that scientists have discovered a solid, rocky planet located just 21 light years away from our own solar system is the cosmic equivalent of suddenly noticing a longtime neighbor just down the street. The world, unflatteringly named HD 219134b, is 1.6 times the size of Earth, but it's 4.5 times as massive. And it's much hotter, with a surface temperature estimated to be about 800 degrees Fahrenheit (427 Celsius), as the AFP reported — far too hot to support life as we know it.
The little spacecraft that couldn't quite land on a comet has nevertheless sent back a wealth of data. The Philae lander was supposed to become the first spacecraft to touch down on a comet in November, after a 10-year journey, but things didn't go as expected. The spacecraft bounced away from its original landing site, eventually coming to rest in a dark area near the edge of a crater. Without enough sunlight to charge its solar panels, Philae operated for about 60 hours on battery power, then entered a long hibernation.
For a long time now, space exploration has been the preserve of a tiny group of highly specialized and highly trained people, funded almost exclusively by public sector organizations. This is in large part due to the fact that space exploration has been prohibitively expensive, but it is also, according to innovators like Burt Rutan and Elon Musk, because politics and bureaucracy have stifled the innovations that would see costs come down.
When the twin Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977, they carried with them two Golden Records encoded with the sounds of Earth. As the spacecraft flew past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and out to the edge of interstellar space, the Golden Records were intended to serve as a greeting to any extraterrestrials the spacecraft might encounter along the way—like a "bottle in the cosmic ocean," as the late astronomer Carl Sagan put it. Among the sounds selected to represent all of humanity were recordings of rain, a mother and child, stone tools, a heartbeat, and more.
Beamed across billions of miles and a very narrow bandwidth, the latest images from the Pluto flyby were worth waiting for. One reveals the view from New Horizons after it sped past Pluto and looked back to study its atmosphere. “This is our equivalent on New Horizons of the Apollo 11 earthrise,” says New Horizons' Alan Stern.