Politics & Policy

Sympathy for the Philae Lander

Exercised about faulty harpoons? You try landing on a comet, says JPL director Charles Elachi.

Should Americans weaned on tales of NASA’s glory days have taken it as an affront to national pride when European Space Agency director general Jean-Jacques Dordain called the ESA’s space-fu “the best expertise in the world” Wednesday? Should we have felt any Schadenfreude as the space gods took a chunk out of European pride with a malfunctioning propulsion and anchor system that doomed the Philae comet lander to a shortened, battery-only life on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko?

No and No, says Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Elachi has run JPL since 2001; and his long, very successful tenure atop the NASA field center has acquainted him closely with the politics of space exploration. In a 2007 interview, Elachi dismissed this reporter’s suggestion that a public space agency should be assessed mainly by its research achievements. “You sometimes do exploration to feel proud as a nation,” Elachi said at the time. “Or for economic purposes. Or for political purposes.”

But Elachi has nothing but praise for the ESA’s Rosetta probe, which earlier this week successfully deposited the Philae lander at the landing site named J or Agilkia on the comet’s surface, about 310 million miles from Earth. However, the lander’s anchoring system — which included a skyward-facing propulsion system to shove the lander into the surface of the comet as well as spikes to hold Philae in place — failed to deploy.

“The comet is about two and a half miles in diameter,” Elachi, on whose watch JPL has repeatedly landed functioning robots on the surface of Mars, tells National Review. “It would cover downtown Washington or New York. The lander is about the size of a dishwasher. So imagine landing a dishwasher in somebody’s home in downtown Washington. The gravity’s extremely small. To picture it, take a feather and drop it toward the floor here on earth. Because that gravity is so low, when you bounce [as appears to have happened twice before Philae came to rest in the shadow of a cliff], you don’t come back immediately. The first bounce took about half an hour, and the lander traveled about a mile.”

Elachi notes that NASA provided three instruments being used on Rosetta, including UV imaging and a microwave instrument. JPL navigators also provide “checks and balances,” he says, in the form of shadow navigation for the comet project.

“The lander hit it right on,” Elachi tells NRO. “The first time was a touchdown. That was unfortunate that the anchor did not work, but these anomalies happen. When we did the landing of Curiosity we had hundreds of devices that all had to work. Unfortunately in this case it was much more serious. But even with all that, to have three or four days of data from a lander on the surface of a comet is tremendous. If it hadn’t been for that anchor it would really have been a slam dunk.”

Elachi, who first read about a “a place called JPL” in an American science magazine when he was a middle-schooler in his native Lebanon, has experienced an enormously successful tenure at the research center, arguably providing the only good news NASA has delivered in the 21st century. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers outlived their expected operational lives by several multiples and developed cult followings. The landing of the Curiosity rover in August 2012 drew an estimated 50 million live viewers in the United States alone, and 1.5 billion users hit the site within the following day. In June Curiosity completed one full Martian year of operation. Although JPL is not NASA’s only robotic exploration arm (the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, for example, will make contact with Pluto in January, via its New Horizons probe), its share of American assets around the solar system gives the Caltech-affiliated research center a fair claim to be the global center of space exploration.

Elachi acknowledges that JPL is still in the midst of a “year of our planet,” in which unmanned space exploration (like manned space exploration) has been hanging in earth orbit, with recent and upcoming missions dedicated to monitoring atmospheric carbon dioxide, sea levels and soil moisture. But it’s back to Mars in 2016, with a joint French-German-American mission to study seismic activity within the seemingly inert planet. “We want to explore that,” Elachi says. “Every time a meteor hits the surface that will ring a little bell, and it will tell us a lot about the internal structure of the planet.” A mission slated for 2020 will aim to collect Martian samples to be retrieved by another vessel later in the decade and transported back to Earth. In the meantime, the head of JPL is international in his appreciation for the challenges of space exploration.

“I feel as proud about an accomplishment done anywhere,” Elachi says. “We worked very closely with the Europeans not just on this mission but on the previous Cassini-Huygens mission to Titan. It’s like asking who’s a better skater: the best hockey player or the best figure skater. Now the Europeans have opened this trail, by landing on a comet. And I understand people being very proud, because it’s really tough.”

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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