Unlocking the secrets of the universe


Rosetta's lander named Philae

With just 21 days until the launch of the European Space Agency's ESA Rosetta comet mission, the spacecraft's lander has been named "Philae" by a 15 year-old Italian girl. Rosetta will embark on a 10 year journey to Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko from Kourou, French Guiana on 26th February 2004.

Philae is the island in the river Nile on which an obelisk was found that had a bilingual inscription including the names of Cleopatra and Ptolemy in Egyptian hieroglyphs. This provided the French historian Jean-Francois Champollion with the final clues that allowed him to translate the hieroglyphs of the Rosetta Stone and unlock the secrets of the civilisation of ancient Egypt.

Just as the Philae Obelisk and the Rosetta Stone provided the keys to an ancient civilization, the Philae Lander and the Rosetta Orbiter will unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our Solar System the comets.

Germany, France, Italy and Hungary are the main contributors to the Lander working together with Austria, Finland, Ireland and the UK. The main contributors held national competitions to select the most appropriate name. Philae was proposed by 15-year-old Serena Olga Vismara from Arluno near Milan, Italy. Her hobbies are reading and surfing the Internet and this is where she got the idea of naming the lander Philae. Her prize will be a visit to Kourou in French Guiana to attend the launch of the Rosetta mission on February 26th.

On learning of her success Serena said, "I love astronomy and visit every day Italian Space Agency's web pages. When I saw the contest regarding the Rosetta lander's name I looked for information on Rosetta Stone on the Internet and I found the idea of naming the lander Philae. I am very happy that my proposal has been chosen because my dream is to be an astronaut and this could be the first step!"

UK scientists are involved in instruments on Rosetta's orbiter and Philae.

Dr Ian Wright, Lead Scientist for the Ptolemy instrument on Philae from the Open University said,

"Philae is a very apt name for Rosetta's lander. The whole mission is about unlocking the secrets of the Universe through the study of a comet in the same way that the discovery of the Rosetta Stone enabled the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The instruments on Philae may provide the final clue to the Rosetta mission to find out more about how life began on Earth."

Study of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko will allow scientists to look back 4600 million years to an epoch when no planets existed and only a vast swarm of asteroids and comets surrounded the Sun. On arrival at the comet in 2014, Philae will be commanded to self-eject from the Orbiter and unfold its three legs, ready for a gentle touchdown. Immediately after touchdown, a harpoon is fired to anchor the Philae to the ground and prevent it escaping from the comet's extremely weak gravity. The legs can rotate, lift or tilt to return Philae to an upright position.

Philae will determine the physical properties of the comet surface and sub-surface and their chemical, mineralogical and isotopic compositions. This will complement the Orbiter studies of the global characterisation of the comet's dynamic properties and surface morphology.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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