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Despite bouncing around the surface and coming to rest in the shadow of a cliff, the Rosetta mission to sample a comet has transmitted vital scientific data back to Earth.


The European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft called Rosetta launched in March 2004 (two years before Twitter!). For the next 10 years it travelled to the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, or 67P for short, near the orbit of Jupiter. It reached the comet this August, and after taking measurements a landing site was selected for its detachable probe named Philae.

Answering big questions

Philae is the first man-made object ever to intentionally land on a comet (a previous mission had been deliberately crashed into one, but not landed). Its mission was to collect information about the composition of 67P. It is thought that comets formed when the solar system was young, 4.6 billion years ago, and have remained relatively unchanged and undisturbed ever since.


According to Museum extraterrestrial materials researcher Dr Penelope Wozniakiewicz:

Comets contain the most pristine examples of the materials available during the early history of the solar system. Studying cometary samples provides us with the opportunity to learn about the conditions and processes that operated back then.

The landing was the most complex part of the mission and successfully took place on Wednesday 12 November, but it wasn't without complications.


The News in brief team captured the milestones leading up to Philae's bumpy touchdown in a Storify, and you can catch up on the events of the day as they happened.

Off to a good start

It started overnight on 11 November with a series of Go/NoGo decisions - a final checklist of whether all systems were operating and ready to go. All decisions were Go, despite a problem detected with the cold gas thruster around 7.00 GMT. The thruster is part of the apparatus designed to help Philae latch on to the comet. The extremely weak gravity of the comet meant Philae would have to work to secure itself to the surface using just its harpoons and foot screws.

Philae's landing apparatus © ESA


The hundreds of millions of kilometres between comet 67P and Earth mean that any signals coming from Rosetta or Philae took about 30 minutes to reach Earth. Philae separated from Rosetta just after 8.30 GMT on 12 November and confirmation was received at ESA just after 9.00 GMT.


It then took Philae seven hours to travel to the comet's surface, all the while switching on scientific instruments and taking measurements and photos. While everyone waited expectantly for news of Philae's arrival, the Nature Live team at the Museum interviewed ESA Rosetta scientist Leah-Nani Alconcel about what it takes to catch a comet. She described how big the comet was, as shown by an ESA provided graphic of how it would look when hovering over London, and the aims of the mission:

Comet 67P compared to London © ESA


When Philae finally got back in contact it looked like it was safely on the surface, and celebrations and congratulations started to pour in.


Inspirational tweets from the Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission

Teething problems

However, it soon became clear that Philae's harpoons did not fire upon landing. Without harpoons or the cold jet thruster, the lander was vulnerable to bouncing across the surface of the comet.


After several hours of confusion, it turned out that Philae had indeed bounced across the surface, touching down three times in total before coming to rest. The first bounce caused Philae to drift hundreds of metres above the surface for nearly two hours. A second bounce lasted only six minutes.


Finally, more than 24 hours after Philae separated from Rosetta, we got to see the view from the surface of a comet:


Philae's final landing site on the comet © ESA


Although Philae was down safely and transmitting back to Earth, it was not at its intended landing site, and the race was on to use Rosetta's cameras to locate its exact position on the comet. From the photos Philae sent back, however, it was clear that it had come to rest at the base of a cliff, and in considerable shadow for most of the day.


This was a problem for its power supply, which comes from solar arrays. Comet 67P was always intended as Philae's final resting place after it ran out of solar power, but the shade meant it would have an even shorter lifespan.

Mission (nearly) accomplished

Philae shut down early on Saturday 15 November, but not before drilling into the comet and performing 80% of its planned scientific readings. The data beamed back to Earth will take months to analyse, but already scientists have one conclusion: the material making up the comet beneath its dusty covering is far harder than anticipated. It's more akin to rock than ice, breaking some instruments. It also explains Philae's first high bounce; the impact of landing was not absorbed by a soft surface as had been hoped.


Philae may yet be able to recharge and come back to life, but even if not, Museum planetary scientist Prof Sara Russell thinks the mission has been a huge success:

I think it is exciting and amazing that some data has been acquired and transferred to Earth by Philae. These data are now being processed by the mission scientists, so there is no further news about what has been sent back, and there may not be for a while. I am hoping that the lander was able to make chemical analyses of the cometary material.

Rosetta as a mission is already a success, as the orbiter has been successfully acquiring lots of information about the comet. The lander part of the mission was always the most risky but it has worked remarkably well too, sending us beautiful and intriguing images of the comet surface.

At the time of writing, the hunt is still on for the lander. The latest news is that Rosetta was able to capture images of Philae as it approached the comet's surface, and also during the first bounce where the lander can be seen heading 'east' and away from the planned landing site:



Rosetta’s Philae lander as it approached and then rebounded from its first touchdown on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 12 November 2014. The final inset image (top right) in the series shows the lander during its bounce, not its final resting place that is still be found. © ESA




Zoology Seminar

Aplacophoran molluscs—Diversity, Relationships and Hidden Beauty


Christiane TODT
University Museum of Bergen, Norway


TUESDAY 22nd May, 12pm

Neil Chalmers Science Seminar Room (DC.LG16)


When residing last summer among the islands and fjords of the western coast of Sweden, I met with an animal the mere external appearance of which immediately attracted my particular attention.
With these words a new species of worm-like marine invertebrate, Neomenia carinata, was introduced to science - communicated by Tycho Tullberg in 1875, finally published in 1886. He could observe a specimen alive and obviously was fascinated by this unknown “worm” covered in calcareous sclerites and creeping on a ciliated ventral gliding sole. Since then, 268 additional species of Solenogastres have been described, and about 130 species of the closely related Caudofoveata. Most of our knowledge on the diversity of the so-called aplacophoran molluscs is based on museum material, predominantly from deep-sea cruises. A wealth of unknown diversity is still resting in museum collections, awaiting attention of one of the very few taxonomic experts. I met my first living solenogaster in 1999 during a field trip to Bermuda. In contrast to Tullberg I knew what I was seeing – educated by my previous thesis work focusing on more or less well-fixed African solenogaster material. Still, I was as fascinated with the strange beauty of these animals. Since 2006, I work in Bergen, Norway, with excellent collecting and culturing facilities and a rich aplacophoran fauna in the fjords just outside the city. In addition, I have access to a large material from Norwegian waters, from recent collection efforts and dating back to the early days of aplacophoran taxonomy. In my seminar talk I will summarize the status quo of knowledge on aplacophoran biodiversity and phylogenetic relationships and outline the planned work for my SYNTHESYS stay at the Natural History Museum (21.5 - 8.6.2012). This work will include testing the suitability of micro-computer-tomography for non-invasive identification of solenogaster museum material.




For additional details on attending this or other seminars see


prince-tarantuala_close up.jpg

Image caption: Prince William holds Sarah the tarantula


Did you see Prince William and the tarantula images in the press last week? Looking slightly wary or pretty relaxed depending on which millisecond of action the camera caught! He was holding the tarantula at the opening of the Museum's new Darwin Centre last Monday.


The tarantula in the photos is called Sarah and is the pet of a member of staff. She was brought in for the The Secrets of Spider Dating talk, part of the Museum's free daily Nature Live events.


Museum spider expert Jan Beccaloni gave the talk and shared her wisdom of spiders telling fascinating facts such as how there are 40,000 or more species of spider in the world and how the jumping spiders have the best eyesight.


And, if that isn't fascinating enough, the American Museum of Natural History has just put on display a textile made from spider silk. It took 80 people, using more than 1 million spiders, 4 years to make.


They collected female golden orb spiders daily from telephone wires from the capital of Madagascar, Antananarivo, during the rainy season (the only time the spiders produce silk).


The process needed people to draw the silk from each spider using hand-powered machines. Each spider produces more than 24m of silk filament. The spiders are released afterwards unharmed.


So, if you are lucky enough to be in New York, make your way to the Museum and have a look at the rare specimen. Not in America? Get a copy of Jan Beccaloni's new book Arachnids.



This week saw the launch of our spectacular new Darwin Centre, with Prince William and Sir David Attenborough. Like no other museum so far, the landmark building with its impressive cocoon structure brings our science, scientists and specimens live and direct to the public.

Not quite as exciting, but hopefully sure to be just as interesting, is the launch of this new Natural History Museum Nature News Blog. I'm hoping to bring news and updates about the work of the Museum's scientists and other nature news - the shorter bits that can or can't be made into full news articles in the website's News section.

I thought I'd begin with some of the science happening in the new Darwin Centre, but there is so much there that I will have to focus on topics, bit by bit, over the next few blogs.

But, the biggest news from the Museum this week is definitely the glittering Darwin Centre grand opening celebrations, with its butterfly confetti, mid-air dancing human butterfly, tarantula close encounter with a royal prince and natural history royalty himself, Sir David Attenborough, all which can be seen in the collection of videos we have on our site.

I leave you with a snippet of Prince William's speech:

'The Natural History Museum is one of our great institutions. Its collections, and what it achieves in the areas of research and education make it - quite simply - the envy of the world. This magnificent new wing will further enhance the museum’s peerless reputation.’

Come back soon for more nature news.